MTV badges on the lapel of a leather jacket

Reality killed the video star

By Brad Hayne @LintMusic

While once being a beacon of alternative youth culture and music trends, the channel famous for its ability to break artists into the mainstream when it first launched in 1981 is now infamous amongst music fans around the world as the place NOT to go if you want to hear any diverse new music.

The channel’s rally cry of ‘I want my MTV!’ has quite literally taken on a new meaning, as music fans over the past two decades have been left pining for the old days of MTV after having witnessed the channel devolve into a platform for cringe-inducing reality TV series and off-brand, annoying prank shows.

In the mid 2000s (a time many consider to be the death of MTV as a music platform) Viacom CBS had taken full ownership, and in relation to the decision to change from an average of 8 hours per day broadcasting music videos to 3 hours, then-president Van Toffler said: “Clearly, the novelty of just showing music videos has worn off. It’s required us to reinvent ourselves to a contemporary audience.”

With YouTube rising around the same time and taking a lot of the music audience, MTV couldn’t keep up, and at a risk of seeming outdated also dropped a lot of its staple music shows such as Unplugged, Headbanger’s Ball, and 120 Minutes. Fans of the genres these shows championed jumped ship, leaving the only music-related content on the channel to be mainstream top 40.

However, a change was already happening earlier and the public didn’t notice. Prior to its hard change of direction with trash like Jersey Shore, MTV was showing now legendary series’ such as Beavis and Butt-head, The Tom Green Show and even the precursor to all American reality TV, The Real World. These shows and more were all well received at the time, and scratched that itch a portion of the public needed when it came to having some variety on the channel.

Sadly, much of the change that MTV has gone through in recent decades under the guise of relating to the ever changing youth is, in fact, due to market trends and not listening to its audience like it did in the 80s and early 90s.

When David Bowie spoke out about the lack of people of colour on the channel in 1983, MTV listened, and started heavily promoting artists including Michael Jackson and Prince (but still enforced their ban on Rick James) as well as creating a fully focused Hip Hop show Yo! MTV Raps. Also noticing the rise of alternative rock pushed MTV to champion smaller ‘buzz’ bands of the early 90’s and downplay metal and classic rock from the previous decade.

Forty years on air is still a hell of an achievement, especially weathering all the controversy attached to playing music videos with content that the conservative far-right lawmakers of 1980s America would have deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the youth. But the state of the channel still leaves many yelling ‘I want MY MTV back!”

Feast your senses: the very first two hours of MTV

Featured image: “Day 041/365 – MTV stops pretending they still show music” by Great Beyond is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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