03 August 2011

Decline and fall.

It was 30 years ago this week that MTV started broadcasting. For those who don't remember, MTV stood for Music Television and it broadcast these things called music videos. It did this all day and all night. There were hosts called "VJs," for "video jockeys," who told viewers about the videos and the artists before or after the station played them. The whole thing was modeled on music-format radio.

Back in those days, MTV played a variety of artists, which didn't include rap or country. Once videos as a concept became more acceptable, videos became more sophisticated. Some of them received preambles to set the mood before the music actually began. Videos that consisted simply of live footage of a band became less frequent or developed a storyline of sorts (see Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark"). Finally, we arrived at the overblown production of Michael Jackson's "Thriller," a founding moment in which videos aspired to be something other than a visual rendering of a song. "Thriller" was a mini-movie, made all the more unbearable because its popularity meant it was on several times a day, eating up a good sixth of an hour every time it aired.

With no serious rivals, MTV consolidated its grip by offering niche shows, such as Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes and the Headbangers Ball. In my opinion, 120 minutes soon became the only time it was worth it to watch MTV.

Then MTV started offering original programming such as game shows, expanded news, and cartoons. Reality shows soon followed. Music became less and less a part of the so-called Music Television's programming.

I have to admit that I rarely watched MTV after I was in high school/college, and when in high school I never watched it home because we didn't have that cable package, so my depth of personal knowledge and experience with MTV ends about a decade into its existence, with the last two decades of its life being categorized as occasional viewing. I know for instance that in the first Real World (I think) there was that annoying bike messenger named Puck and some guy with AIDS and some brunette who wore stupid clothes. However, I can't tell you how many Real Worlds there were.

The channel is clearly aimed at the young, and to an extent it's hilarious to hear people like me, people in their forties and/or late thirties, complaining about the format of a channel that's so clearly geared toward teenagers to early twenty-somethings. No one is stopping a rival from coming in to fill the gap left by MTV's abandoning of music videos.

Most of the people complaining about MTV's decline are probably people like me who complained bitterly back in the day about the crappy quality of the music that MTV did play. I hated almost all of the artists we associate with MTV-friendliness: Michael Jackson and Madonna first and foremost. MTV in its music phase was essentially a top 40 station that deigned to play outside its format on occasion.

It's really hard to measure decline when you're constantly running into references to its latter day output, from Jackass to Jersey Shore.

So MTV isn't what it was 30 years ago. So what?

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