Tuesday, August 01, 2006

TV or MTV? That really is the question!

Today over lunch, a friend of mine mentioned that today is the 25th anniversary of MTV. He joked, "I wonder how many people know that MTV stands for something?"

Of course, what he meant is that MTV is an abbreviation of "Music TeleVision". Most people know that MTV stands for something, although it's not always clear exactly what. The point that the "M" stands for music seems like it ought to give a hint that MTV stands for bringing music to cable television, but anyone turning on MTV at any point in its history might have reason to doubt that.

In its early days, I'm sure there were many people of varied ages and backgrounds who, upon tuning in, could be found to declare, "THAT'S not music!" While these people might be written off as "fuddy-duddies" (and I fear only a true fuddy-duddy would actually use the term) there is an innate problem with music in that few people like all kinds of music, so a radio or video station can play a little bit of everything and manage to find something to turn everybody off some of the time, or play a very specialized selection of music and therefore turn somebody off all of the time. Back when I was in high school, and I actually had MTV, I wasn't a big fan of either rap or metal, which made up a large portion of what music was played on MTV. Although I've since grown to appreciate both of these musical genres in their own ways, I probably still wouldn't sit and listen to either kind of music for extended periods of time.

The real issue of why MTV fails at actually being a music channel (the real point of this train of thought) isn't the genres they choose to air. If that were true, 95% of the music radio stations that are out there would cease to exist. Stations play nothing but metal, rap, R&B, "classic" rock, "oldies" rock, "alternative" rock, "hard" rock, "soft" rock, classical, jazz, or polka, and they get along just fine. The problem isn't the kind of music, it's the fact that it *is* music.

It seems like it was just a few years ago that MTV launched this major ad campaign in which they heralded the forthcoming "MTV2" which was going to be a cable TV station dedicated to (catch this...) music. It was a funny moment in the history of MTV for myself and many of my friends who looked nostalgically back on MTV's early days; MTV was essentially admitting that MTV wasn't music television. Tune in to see what's on MTV at any given time in the last ten years or so (maybe longer) and rather than catching a music video, you might see the latest episode of "The Real World", "Cribs", "Pimp My Ride", or "Celebrity Deathmatch". This is what MTV stands for, they stand for a lifestyle of some sort, and that lifestyle may or may not have anything to do with music. There's nothing wrong with this per se. These days, most cable channels (and even a few traditional broadcast channels) stand for a lifestyle, and it may even be admirable. If you're really into food, you watch the Food Network. If you're into partying and having a really great car, watch MTV. If you're gay, I think you watch Bravo. Your television watching habits become a part of your culture, and helps you build identity.

So, MTV2 was supposedly for people who like music, right? But wait, they're showing "Celebrity Deathmatch" too? A cartoon called "Where My Dogs At?" and "Wonder Showzen", which is not the first phenomenon I've heard called "Like Sesame Street on crack", but seems to fit it better than anything I can recall. Where did the music go?

See, the real problem, I think, is encapsulated by something from the early days of another cable channel, Comedy Central. They used to have a show in the early days called "Short Attention Span Theater" which was hosted (at the time I used to watch it) by Jon Stewart. While it was an apt title of that show--which, like many early Comedy Central shows, played short clips of stand up comedians around two to four minutes long--sometimes it seems like an appropriate description of the original format of MTV.

Less like your standard sorts of television, with hour- and half-hour-long shows, and more like radio, with a constant stream of five-odd-minute musical presentations, MTV was in a way the ideal television for people with short attention spans. Can't get yourself to concentrate on a complicated 24 minutes of "WKRP in Cincinnati"? Maybe you'd rather watch six minutes of Billy Idol rocking out to cool special effects shots and light shows? Maybe Madonna's latest attempt to be shocking that only further numbs you to the very concept of "shocking"? I know, how about Van Halen's "Jump" for the five hundredth time? That one never gets old!

Well, the way I see it, MTV ends up being the solution for viewers with short attention spans, and thus at the same time, their own downfall. If they had existed in the days before TV remote controls, maybe they would have stood a chance, but the attention-span-deprived viewer is also the one whose itchy trigger thumb is ever hovering over the channel-changing buttons, waiting for any excuse to bolt. When that first commercial comes on five minutes into "The Cosby Show", you're going to hang around because you want to know how Theo's date turns out. On MTV, when the commercial kicks in, the "show" you were watching is already over. In fact, even if the video you were raptly watching is followed by another video, it may be one you don't care about, and off you go! While with regular TV, if it can get you hooked, it's got you for thirty minutes, MTV can only keep you enthralled until the current song ends. Maybe not even that long, if you've already seen the video and don't care to see it again.

Viewers love the early MTV format, but it doesn't suck them in the way a successful television presentation really needs to. Witness the success of daytime soap operas and prime-time miniseries: what else can account for such notoriously mediocre TV having such a devoted following except the fact that these are designed to drag you back, glued to the screen, day after day? Bring the viewers back, make them watch compulsively, and the advertising dollars flood in. The only reason radio stations work is that most people listen to them in their cars, or at other times when they are stuck someplace for an indeterminate amount of time.

For there to be a station like the early MTV that's just about the music, there has to be a company that doesn't care how much money they make in producing a cable TV channel. I don't know who's out there like that.

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