Analyzing The End Of Music Television

A look at the demise of MTV as 'Music Television'.

Iann Robinsonby Iann Robinson

Analyzing The End Of Music Television

Over the last few weeks a once great titan of pop culture has undergone what many feel is a long overdue facelift. MTV dropped from its logo the words “Music Television” a move that seems to be propelling the channel once step closer to being just another television station.

From here on in the MTV will mean simply the station letters in the same vein as CW or FOX. Dropping the music television moniker will also reduce the responsibility MTV has to actually represent music. Now they can handpick who and what they cover because they’re not music television anymore, they’re just MTV.

Personally I don’t think anybody will be crying in their beer over this because the days of MTV having anything to do with music began winding down in the mid-eighties and eventually ground to halt in the late nineties. The channel is now much more dedicated to shilling stereotypes e.g. “Jersey Shore” or “Teen Mom” than anything else.

I’m sure they’ll still involve themselves in selling financially struggling viewers the wet dream of the rock star life with shows like Cribs but outside of that MTV is going to be searching out the next Snooki, not the next great band.

MTV Vice President of Marketing Tina Exarhos said about the change “Music is still at the heart of everything we do, but it’s about a lot more now," she added. "If MTV didn’t change, we’d be irrelevant." I think that quote is very telling especially if you remove the marketing spin Exarhos has put on it. First of all music is not at the heart of what MTV does, money is.  

The channel hasen’t been pushing new music shows or new bands; they’ve been pushing their reality shows. The next part of the quote saying MTV is about a lot more now seems more to say that they’re tired of being put under the spotlight for having almost nothing to do with music and hopefully being sans the music television logo the heat might back off for now.  

The final bit is my favorite, where Exarhos says if MTV didn’t change they’d be irrelevant because that is the heart of the entire MTV problem. MTV is already irrelevant, they have been for a long time now and they became irrelevant by trying to market themselves as relevant. MTV has always operated under this façade that they were cutting edge that somehow they were a beacon to the audience when in actuality the channel was as mainstream as it got.  

I don’t think it was MTV being mainstream that annoyed people it was the whole idea of being the channel existing as a cool place for new music and new ideas. Folks could tell that was a lie and once hypocrisy set in MTV instantly became, and stayed, irrelevant. With that irrelevance came harsher criticism and more media scrutiny. The channel were desperate to not let the ship sink and this logo change is the first bit of patchwork to try and save the boat. If MTV can establish themselves as a normal channel with a wide scope of TV shows that appeal to youngsters then they can sell advertising much easier. 

When I worked at MTV I was told that selling advertising during videos was hard because you couldn’t get a reading on who was watching or for how long. One video ended and if the next one wasn’t liked the channel was changed. With long format programming the advertisers could say, “This target audience watches at this time in this percentage”. I was also told that MTV could charge more for ad rates even with low ratings because it was MTV; it was the legendary channel all the young people tuned into. Combining those two elements could mean a huge financial boost for a company that gave up their studio and had massive layoffs. If left to only create long form programs that mimicked the ratings shows on NBS or CBS get that could also be charged higher rates because “it’s MTV” the money would be staggering.  

MTV maintains in the press that the logo change was to show more of what MTV is today and not what it was in 1981, which doesn’t really hold water for me. MTV hasn’t been what it was in 1981 since 1986 and yet the logo remained. What seem to have happened is that the channels choices led to the same downfall that major labels are experiencing. At some point MTV decided that being this weird artistic landing pad was not satisfying their responsibilities to Viacom so MTV opted to try and create tastes instead of presenting choices.  

MTV began slowly to become the marketing wing for the major labels in an unspoken way. It pushed bands the labels wanted pushed and created false buzz around entertainers to make it seem like the audience was in on something they never had any choice about. For example when I worked there we had a news segment called ‘You Hear It First’. One day we were told that this segment was supposedly dedicated to unknown and underground music but they wound up featuring Alicia Keys.  

True we ran the segment about her before her album came out but that was a serious loophole. Keys was about to have a million dollar campaign blitz and the video we showed on You Hear It First cost tons to shoot. Don’t get me wrong I have nothing against Keys but she was far from a small indy artist who needed a segment like You Hear It First.  

MTV effectively made people believe a pop star, that was going to be rammed down their throats in a few weeks anyway, was something new and exciting the channel had discovered. That’s just one example but MTV and the major labels were doing this dance for a long time. At first people really thought MTV was breaking new talent and then the labels were picking them up. As viewers became hip to that idea MTV was seen as just another corporate entity available to the highest bidder.

Cue the explosion of the Internet and how it’s been effecting music ever since. The major labels are losing ground everyday, new labels are springing up and old indie favorites are using the web to sell their product to millions of fans. The days of the major labels as kingmakers has come to a screeching halt and along with it the guarantee of success for MTV. With that MTV started pumping out reality shows featuring Real World, Road Rules, The Osbournes, Travis Barker, and so on until now the channel once know for music is now known as the place to catch The Jersey Shore. 

 


The other problem is that MTV lost face with pretty much any credible or serious voice in music. Bands didn’t need them, critics found the channel to be laughable and ridiculous, even the viewers who watched it gave it zero credence in terms of music knowledge. Without warning MTV went from the cool kid in the corner of the bar with dark shades and a poets voice to that creepy old guy with his shirt open and a gold chain trying to pick up college coeds. The more MTV tried to play any kind of music card the sillier they looked. It was time for the channel to either re-involve itself in music or do away with it almost completely. MTV chose the latter. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think what MTV is doing is the correct move for who they are now and it’s a long time coming. MTV is the street rat of television, surviving no matter what the conditions. To be honest I thought MTV would do something like this much earlier simply because they needed to in order to survive. The old ways for the channel were dying quickly in terms of how MTV used to service the public. This was a new game, one where the viewers were hip to any wool being pulled over their eyes. 

MTV really had nowhere else to go. The two sides of the channel, News and Production could no longer exist the way they had. Having given up any kind of hard-hitting journalism in order to crank out ego stroking puff pieces on the entertainer du jour MTV News had become a punch line. From there the news department held less and less airtime until it eventually became something mostly dealt with online.  

Production could no longer pump out regurgitated video shows about the same artists day in and day out and the flagship show TRL was now a distant memory. So MTV slicked back it’s matted fur, sharpened its teeth and attacked pop culture from another angle. 

The angle was simply MTV listening to what audiences have been saying for years; “Why call yourself music television if you don’t have anything to do with music?” I don’t know what MTV brain trust finally figured out that was the correct call but I hope he or she becomes president of the company. Why fight all this onslaught of criticism about not actually being a music channel when MTV could just stop being a music channel.  

Some might still associate the “M” with music but it wouldn’t take long for the MTV letters to have no greater public association than NBC or CBS. Nobody cares that NBC stands for National Broadcasting Company, only that it’s the channel that brings people their favorite shows. The same will be true for MTV within the next ten years.  

The All Music ship was sinking so the ultimate TV rats found a new and sturdier ship to board, thus surviving another crisis. Now MTV is free to pump as many insipid, moronic, shallow and vulgar reality shows as it wants to or maybe create awful original programming. The channel won’t sell ads based on reaching those young kids who love music but rather those young kids who like bad TV. 

I think the only real misstep here is MTV’s assertion that they dropped the music television from the logo as an attempt to move forward. MTV always tries to cast these delusions of grandeur around their motives but really; I think we all see through that now. MTV would do better to be honest and just admit they don’t really have anything at all to do with music so dropping the music television seemed like the bright thing to do. I think even MTV’s deepest critics would applaud that kind of honesty. I know I would. 

Now that the logo is gone I see big changes coming for MTV. The music involvement will become less than ever and the onslaught of TV shows will begin. I guarantee in some board meeting somewhere MTV execs are looking at how to do a full on hour drama or at least a sitcom. The reality shows will keep coming but trust me, original program is what MTV will want to move into to solidify that they’re just a TV station now, not a music channel.  

I’d lay a bet that even the once iconic VMAs will become a thing of the past. The show has been ridiculed loudly ever since the year they allowed an obviously messed up and out of practice Britney Spears perform and then, to make up for humiliating her, showered her with awards the following year. Lacking credibility, with ratings slipping each year and MTVs new direction, the VMAs’ days are numbered. 

I was ten years old when MTV started and I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I was twenty years old when I began to realize the chinks in the armor and I was thirty years old (and working there) when I finally understood how corrupt the system really was. From about 2004/2005 the channel has been drowning and I think this logo change is their life preserver. 

MTV doesn’t want to be a music channel anymore; they just want to be a normal channel with the freedom to dumb down America for profit like all other stations. No more stress to be inventive, creative or exciting. Everything can be built by focus groups and nobody will call MTV out for what they put on the air. Some (mostly MTV execs) may see this as the death of a giant, a historical moment. I see it more as the final and merciful passing of a sad creature that had been dying slowly for years. We may not all love what’s left in its place but let’s be honest: 

It used to be “I want my MTV” 

Now it’s simply “What’s on MTV tonight?”