- Entertainment and Media
I Want The Original MTV
MTV is dead to me.
With exception to their awards shows, the VMA's in particular, I have avoided that channel for at least a decade. Jersey Shore? I know of cast members called JWoww, Snooki and The Situation. They are mentioned all the time on shows like Access Hollywood, have been guests on all the talk shows, and one of them allegedly wrote a book. But I have never had the desire to watch an episode of Jersey Shore, even after friends and relatives spoke highly of it. I don't watch MTV. I use to watch that channel a lot. It use to be on all the time. For a while there my cable box was even programmed to tune into MTV when the box was turned on. But no more. I have abandoned MTV. And I did so because MTV abandoned me first.
This August 1st marked MTV's 30th anniversary. I decided to ignore it. Heck, even MTV seemed to ignore their own anniversary. For the most part it was celebrated over on VH1 Classic. There were plenty of newspaper and magazine articles marking the event. Predictably each article spent more time discussing how the channel no longer airs music videos and just barely mentioned any of it's current programming. A couple of the reporters contacted kiss ass Mark Goodman, still brown nosing for MTV even though the channel unceremoniously fired him and the other original VJs 24 years ago. Goodman argued in behalf of MTV saying there is no longer a need for music on television now that you can get them on Youtube and other websites. I bit my tongue and decided to ignore Goodman. Websites where MTV articles appeared came with forums inviting the reader to post a comment. There were many comments by those who were sick of the "complainers" who keep screaming about how MTV no longer airs music videos. Their collective response went something like this: "Get over it already!!! MTV has not aired videos in ages. It is far more popular today than it ever was way back in its early days. It is a different channel now, so all you middle aged men should stop complaining like babies about something that happened decades ago." I decided to ignore them. We all knew that there would be a generation too young to have seen MTV when it was still a music channel. Now that generation is in it's teens. Why argue with them. MTV is their channel now, and has been for as long as they can remember. If they want MTV then let them have it.
But then came this year's Music Video Awards. Like I said, I still end up watching the VMAs, and take some sort of interest in how it did in the ratings. This year it broke a record. It was the all time highest rated show in MTVs history. Don't ask me why, but 12 million viewers tuned in to see it. It was even a record among their target demographic of 12 to 34 year olds at 8.5 million who made up more than two thirds of the viewers that night. In contrast, the show that followed, a preview for their new comedy series called "I Want My Pants Back", dropped off to 5 million viewers. Proof positive that there is more of a demand for music programming on television than for reality shows about drunken Italian teenagers from New Jersey ( the channel's current "hit" ). And yet the way the VMA's were treated this year by the channel's programmers showed how little respect MTV executives have for what remains of their music programming. This year the award show ended abruptly, without anyone saying goodnight or even bothering to run any closing credits. The show had run late by a few minutes. In the past MTV would air a post awards show to sweep the following half hour and allow the VMA to run over. This year there was no post awards show, and those in charge wanted to get to "I Want My Pants Back" as soon as possible. In fact, this years VMA was only scheduled for 2 hours and 15 minutes with a one hour pre-show. A far cry from the years when there would be about two hours of pre-show, a 3 and a half hour VMA, and an hour post show. They didn't even bother to book a host this year.
That was the straw that broke the camel's back. MTV dumping out of their highest rated show so they could get to a scripted comedy that will no doubt be canceled and forgotten about in a few months time. Yet another FU to those who want to see their favorite recording artists on television, and another FU to the original MTV generation. Well, that does it. Yes, I want to complain about MTV no longer having music videos. And yes, I am complaining about what amounts to ancient history at this point. But MTV screwed me, not just once, but multiple times. MTV screwed everyone who originally watched that channel, and the ones who got it worst were the ones who had cable during the 80s. What MTV did rivals Benedict Arnold in treason. The executives at MTV went beyond destroying a once great channel, they succeeded in creating a trend that has destroyed cable television itself. And if you think I am over reacting, then just read on.
We once had our own channel
In 1981 popular music on television was sparse. There was nothing on Monday thru Thursday with exception to guest spots on the three talk shows, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, and Mike Douglas. Friday Night saw NBC's hour long Midnight Special following Carson. Saturday saw American Bandstand and Soul Train in the afternoon, two programs where teenagers spent the hour dancing to popular music and a guest recording artist. And beginning after 11:30 PM there was Saturday Night Live followed at 1PM by the hour long Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. And at some point during the weekend, depending on where you lived, there were the syndicated shows Hee-Haw ( half hour of Country music and corny comedy skits ), Solid Gold ( hour long program that counted down the top ten aided by professional dancers and a handful of guest recording artists ) and America's Top 10 ( Half hour long countdown show where that weeks top ten from the Pop, Soul, Country and Album charts were read, each followed by a music video from the chart ) . That accounted for less than four hours of music programming a week, most of which was on at inconvenient hours.
Then Warner-Amex announced they would be launching a 24 hour music radio station on television called MTV which would utilize music videos. It sounded like a great idea, but would only be available to those who had cable. Although cable began in the 1940s, it's purpose was to bring clear reception to towns too remote or situated behind tall hills to pick up their local television stations. In cities Cable was established because residential buildings had their signals blocked by the taller skyscrapers. Areas that had good reception, which was most of the United States, had no need for cable. Then in 1976 the owner of Atlanta's WTBS, Ted Turner, came up with the idea of uplinking his station to a satellite and then convincing cable companies around the United States to carry it. It took a few years, but eventually TBS could be found on cable across the country. Ted's reason for doing this? The more cable companies who carried WTBS meant more potential viewers could watch the channel, which meant he could charge his advertisers more money. By 1980 Turner was making far more money through cable than he ever did through the regular process of a broadcast tower. The idea spread. Pat Robertson launched CBN ( Christian Broadcast Network ) which upped his weekly viewer donations into the hundreds of millions. HBO ( Home Box Office ) launched a pay channel that offered uncut movies all day long. ESPN introduced the concept of the niche channel where programming consisted on a single genre, in ESPN's case 24 hours of sports. When MTV was launched it was just one among hundreds of new channels and local stations trying to repeat Ted Turner's success.
When MTV was launched it was part of a package from Warner-Amex of channels that included Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel. Any cable company wanting to carry any one of the Warner-Amex channels would have to carry all the others. On the one hand this made MTV a hard sell to any cable company that wanted that channel alone, but on the other raised the possibility that MTV got added to many cable systems who were only interested in Nickelodeon. On August 1st of 1981 a few thousand lucky viewers who both had cable and had MTV added got to watch video of the space shuttle launching ( the previous day saw hours of footage of the space shuttle on the launching pad along with a countdown ) followed by an astronaut planting the MTV flag on the moon, then into the studio where Mark Goodman welcomed everyone to "the future of television", explained what MTV was, and then played the channel's first music video, the Buggle's "Video Killed the Radio Star". They all got to see MTV's first day full of technical mistakes, and 24 hours of non stop music videos and concert clips. The event even merited mention on Entertainment Tonight. But if MTV or any of the other Warner-Amex channels were to succeed then they would need to be added to thousands of other cable systems across the country. Simple economics. The more systems they were available on the more viewers the channels could get which meant the more they could charge their advertisers. MTV was only available to a few thousand viewers, only a tenth of which kept the channel on for more than an hour a day. With ratings down in the hundreds MTV was running commercials for free and could not charge advertisers anything. Something had to be done or MTV and the rest of the Warner -Amex channels would go from "the future of television" to history within a few months.
MTV executives launched an advertising campaign on broadcast television called "I Want My MTV" . The commercials had popular Rock and Pop stars explaining that MTV was a 24 hour music channel, and if you wanted something that cool then you would have to call your local cable company and demand they add the channel. Cable companies across the country were besieged by callers, mostly teenagers, yelling "I Want MY MTV!!!!" and asking when the channel would be added. The campaign worked. Within a year MTV was on about half the nations cable outlets and available to millions of viewers. It was on more systems than TBS, which was quite an achievement. Other cable outlets resisted adding the Warner-Amex channels, so the MTV add campaign continued for most of the 1980s. Between 1981 and 83 the advertisements were relentless. On any given channel, an hour did not go by without an "I Want My MTV" commercial airing. Radio stations aired MTV ads on nearly every commercial break. It was almost as if MTV was trying to brainwash America into wanting their channel. It made those who had cable want MTV, and those who did not have cable wishing they did have cable.
The Beginning of the End
For the majority of America MTV was an exciting phenomenon that they had no access to. MTV may as well have been a channel in Japan if you lived in an area that did not have cable television. If you lived anywhere near a large town or city where there was good television reception then there was no cable. There would have been no need for cable, would there? Mark Goodman was right, MTV was the future of television, as were all of the other niche channels available on cabel only. And much like flying cars, robots and space ships, it was something that most of us would not be having access to for years to come.
Suddenly there was a reason to want cable other than to improve your reception of the local stations. Cable subscriptions began to go up as millions of Americans abandoned their roof antennas for cable. Niche channels offered an exciting new aspect, 24 hours of programming on your favorite subject. MTV showed that the best way to get your channel added to cable systems was to have cable subscribers ask for it in droves. And that is just what millions of viewers did, making the extra effort to call their cable companies nearly every day and to write angry letters threatening to cancel their subscriptions unless MTV was added. Even cable systems who were dead set against adding MTV eventually gave in. Other new channels relied on the same momentum that MTV created. It was far easier to rally viewers behind a niche channel than another Super Station like TBS or USA that would offer mostly the same programming already available on local television.
The M in MTV stood for Music. Music TV. The viewers who pestered their cable companies into adding the channel did so because MTV was sold as a 24 hour music channel. Like I said, it was only available to cable subscribers who's system had the channel. For the rest of us it was the channel we wished we had. We all wanted MTV. Those who did not have it did not realize it was all about to come to an end. MTV was only on the air for less than two years when it happened. In 1983 they began to air the British sitcom "The Young Ones", the reason given was that each episode had a performance from a guest artists such as Moterhead and Madness. The channel chipped away at it's music programming in 1985 with "Andy Warhol's 15 Minutes", an interview show that usually featured up and coming recording artists. In 1986 MTV introduced three new shows, "Dial MTV" where viewers called in and voted for videos in that evenings live countdown show, "120 Minutes" that aired odd videos in the new Progressive Rock category, and the classic 60s sitcom "The Monkees" under the premise that it was about a rock band. 1987 MTV announced the Heavy Metal video show "Head Bangers Ball", a permanent music news show called "The Week in Rock", and their first deliberate non music program, a game show called "Remote Control". The premise was contestants asked questions about classic sitcoms and was developed for Nickelodeon. But by 1987 Warner-Amex had sold their channels to Viacom, who in turn put them under the control of the newly formed MTV Networks. Nickelodeon had gone from a channel that re-aired Canadian kids shows, to one that produced their own programs. MTV executives who were limited to producing music video programs had been jealous of what had been going on at Nickelodeon, but now that Viacom had turned them into MTV Networks they had the freedom to do whatever they wanted. So they stole "Remote Control" and aired it on their own channel with the excuse that it was a Rock-and-Roll inspired game show. They claimed that this was the sort of programming that MTV viewers wanted to see. This was not the case. The channel received lots of complaints from viewers who did not appreciate a half hour each day being used for a game show.
After MTV got away with "Remote Control", they began to program other non-music programs. There was the stand up comedy show "The ½ Hour Comedy Hour" 1n 1988. A year later the fashion show "House of Style" hosted by supermodel Cindy Crawford. That same year Cindy hosted an hour long interview show where her guests were other supermodels. If regular viewers did not yet get that the days of music videos were numbered at MTV, Cindy Crawford's interview show was an unmistakable bad omen of things to come. If you were expecting supermodels in sexy outfits saying anything interesting then forget it. They wore spots jackets and yapped relentlessly about being photographed. To make matters worse, the executives at MTV were so sure that getting that many supermodels in one room was a big event that for the entire weekend they had a marathon of the same hour long show, shown over and over again non stop from Friday through Monday. Viewers were justifiably upset that the channel had been preempted. The executives at MTV did not care. Viacom had put them in charge of their own network. They had no one to answer to. It was there network to do whatever they wanted with.
The original VJs had become popular celebrities. There was no reason to fire any of them. MTV executives decided they wanted to do a lot more with their VJ segments, specifically expanding them to include comedy bits and stunts. Events that involved outdoor remotes such as "MTV Beach House" and "Spring Break" were programmed to allow viewers to participate in games during the VJ segments. But these extended VJ segments meant one or two less videos an hour, and complaints from viewers who had to sit through these extended segments waiting for the music to begin. The original VJs were by this time celebrities. But that did not stop MTV from firing them one by one and replacing them with more energetic VJs, including not one but two named Julie Brown. Julie Brown 2 had her own show "Just Say Julie", made up of extended VJ segments filled with sketch comedy and videos she often talked over. Another new VJ had a similar show, comedian Pauly Shore and his show "Totally Pauly". While both Pauly Shore and Julie Brown were professional stand up comedians, on MTV they were reduced to acting in skits written by MTV staff members who neither had experience in writing comedy, nor experience in writing anything. As far as MTV was concerned bad comedy + music videos = hip cutting edge programming.
MTV Monopolizes Music Television
MTV may have been on the edge of self destruction, but the rest of us without cable did not know this. We, who could only dream about having MTV, had settled for NBC's "Friday Night Videos" and the occasional syndicated music video program. And if you were really lucky you lived in a town that had one of the few UHF music video channels. In 1983 Michael Jackson made a short movie called "Thriller". Not really a music video, it was released to theaters and then to home video before it was made available for television broadcast, months after the song had fallen off the pop charts. Unlike real music videos, channels who wished to air "Thriller" had to pay a stiff broadcast fee, no different than with other motion pictures. "Thriller" had aired on many music video outlets including "Friday Night Videos" before MTV executives came up with the idea of buying the exclusive rights to air it, exclusive rights that lasted well into the next millennium. Now adverts for MTV announced that it would be the only place you could see Michael Jackson's "Thriller" as a selling point. The success of MTV lead to many copycats. Not just the hour long music video programs on broadcast television, but extended music video blocks on the Superstations, and a few attempts at creating rival music video channels. A few entrepreneurs launched UHF channels across the country that aired 24 hours of music videos. The more rival video outlets came into existence the less demand there was for MTV. It was still the champ and preferred music channel, but you were not going to pester your local cable company to add MTV if you had some alternatives available. MTV wanted to do away with all it's rivals. If they could make "Thriller" an exclusive, then why not other music videos?
The early 80s had been a disaster for the recording industry. The Disco backlash of 1979 took out most of the biggest recording acts. Radio stations were no longer willing to play Disco singles, and were very reluctant to play singles from the New Wave and Punk Rock acts that were the next generation of popular music. Record sales were way down. Then in 82 there was a rebound in sales, and it was credited to MTV. MTV was willing to play videos by New Wave acts, and in turn viewers who saw those videos would go on to request the songs at their local radio stations, who in turn played the singles, which in turn lead to listeners who did not have MTV hearing the music and buying the albums. MTV became a vital link in record sales. So when MTV arm twisted the major labels into signing contracts giving MTV exclusive rights to air their videos, the record labels had little choice but to do so. Under these contracts only MTV was allowed to play new video releases, anywhere from one month to an entire year before those videos were released to other channels. By 1986 the MTV commercials were boasting dozens of current hit songs who's videos were MTV exclusives. This was devastating to the competition. One by one they failed, and the ones that did not ended up being bought by Viacom who in turn handed them over to MTV networks. BET, CMT, The Nashville Network, and The Box all ended up under MTV ownership. Even video shows on broadcast television and the UHF video channels suffered. By the 90s the last show standing was "Friday Night Videos".
A few rivals chose to sue MTV for violating anti trust laws, but unfortunately did not have enough money to fight the Viacom lawyers. in the mid 90s the major record labels, unhappy with MTV continuing to remove music programming from their schedule and going back on a promise they made to support new recording acts, decide to get together and launch their own channel. In an act of irony MTV asked Viacom to sue the participating record labels to block the channel using anti-trust laws. The lawsuits delayed FCC approval of the channel long enough that the venture fell apart. One of the labels involved, Universal Music Group, did not give up on the idea of launching a rival channel to MTV. To get around the anti-trust laws that would have prevented them from airing their own videos on their own channel, Universal attempted to team up with Vivid Video on a channel to be called 1AM. The call letters had a double meaning, both standing for the First Amendment ( the channel wanted to air uncensored music videos ) and for the early morning hours when the channel would switch from videos to porno films, and back again to videos by 5:00am. This channel would have launched in 2004, but that venture also fell apart prior to it's launch.
MTV Really Screws Over It's Core Viewers
MTV along with many other niche channels made cable television desirable. By the late 80s companies were investing in bringing cable to areas that never had it before. Hundreds of millions of Americans who never had MTV were finally able to get the channel between 1988 and 1995, just in time to witness it's demise as a music video channel. The 90's saw the addition of the shows "Sex in the 80s/90s", "MTV Sports", "The Real World" and "Road Rules". There were also several game shows that followed "Remote Control", the only one to become a hit being "Singled Out". In 1993 MTV debuted "Beavis & Butt-Head", the first of their in house produced cartoons. This would soon be followed by "The Story of the Brothers Grunt", "The Head", "Æon Flux" and "The Maxx". That same year came the first of many sketch comedy shows, "The State". A year later MTV debuted "Dead At 21", a low budget science fiction drama series. It would be the first of many attempts by MTV to produce a successful scripted series. With each new show MTV added to their schedule another few hours of music programing was eliminated. A few of these shows were hits. Most were flops. Viewers complained, but no one at MTV cared.
In 1997, at a press conference to announce their new season, a spokesperson for the channel announced that MTV had "rediscovered their music roots." They wanted to return to being a music channel, and promised that all non music programming would be moved to after 10pm in a programming block called "The 10 Spot". It took MTV less than a week to break this promise. Instead of moving non-music programming beyond 10pm, they eliminated music from 5:30pm onward. Prior to this there was non-music programming between 7 and 8pm followed by another non-music block of programming between 10 and 11pm. Now the new schedule had an hour long talk show called "MTV Live" at 5:30, a scripted (?) game show called "12 Angry Viewers" at 6:30, reruns of ABC's "My So Called Life" at 7:00, reruns of "Beavis & Butt-Head" at 8:00 and 8:30, a repeat of that days "MTV Live" at 9:00, and then whatever was in "The 10 Spot" at 10:00pm. A deliberate FU to MTV viewers everywhere. From that point on the music was gradually phased out.
MTV removing videos was, for most of the core viewers, unforgivable. But it did not end there. In 1996 MTV launched M2, a second music video channel. M2 would be music videos only, and MTV promised that it would always remain so. Once again MTV asked their viewers to pester their local cable company into adding M2. And once again once M2 was added to enough cable systems it changed format, changing it's name to MTV2 and phasing out music videos in favor of reruns of MTV non-music programs. This had been a second stab in the heart for MTVs core viewers. One could even say that they had been stabbed more than twice. When MTV networks was formed, MTV executives gained control of sister channel VH1. Originally an Adult Contemporary music channel, in the early 90s it was revamped into more of a retro video channel mixed with current pop hits, a format that appealed to the core MTV viewers then being disenfranchised by MTV. But VH1 had no intention of remaining a music channel, and much like bigger brother MTV wanted to produce their own programming. The executives over at VH1 were a bit more subtle about this. Where MTV just blatantly added non-music programming to their schedule, VH1 chose to gradually phase programming in. For example, when they began airing movies in the early 90s, they did so with films starring recording artists, such as The Beatles, Elvis, ABBA and the Woodstock documentary. This segued into musicals such as "Grease" and "Fame", and from there into dance films like "Saturday Night Fever", "Footloose" and "Flashdance". By the late 90s it was soundtrack heavy movies like "Top Gun" and "Beverly Hills Cop", finally segueing into films with no musical connection whatsoever such as "The Godfather". Another example, their acclaimed series "Behind the Music" went from documentaries about recording stars to a documentaries about The Monkees and The Partridge Family, finally ending with documentaries about sitcoms like The Brady Bunch. VH1 went from retro music to retro culture ( as in shows like "I Love The 80s" ) and there to reality shows starring former stars from the past, and eventually ending with reality shows with more recent celebrities. What VH1 did was slow and deliberate, and was sanctioned by MTV Networks.
It did not end there. Under MTV Networks, The Nashville Network became The National Network and finally relaunching as Spike. CMT ( Country Music Television ) went from being a 24 hour Country video channel to airing reruns of "The Dukes of Hazzard" and "Dallas". The Box was eradicated and used to carry the MTV2 signal. Around 2000 MTV Networks announced the launch of eight additional sub channels that would be made available to digital cable and satellite. These included MTV Hits ( 24/7 current Pop videos ), MTVX ( 24/7 Metal and Hard Rock videos ) MTVS ( 24/11 Spanish language videos ), VH1 Megahits ( 24/11 current and retro 90s videos ), VH1 Classic ( 24/7 retro videos from the 60s, 70s and 80s ) VH1 Soul ( 24/7 Soul videos ) VH1 Country ( 24/7 Country videos ), and VH1 Uno ( 24/11 Spanish language videos). MTV claimed that they could run these channels without commercial breaks, and therefore they would not need huge ratings. An additional promise was made that they would remain music channels. But much like with MTV2, each time one of these channels became popular they were immediately reformatted. The most popular channel, VH1 Classic, was phased into a retro culture channel against it's core viewers wishes ( that core viewership was predictably the same viewers from the original MTV years ). VH1 Megahits was sized by MTV Networks and turned into LOGO. They also snatched from VH1 their Country channel ( relaunched as CMT Pure Country ) and VH1 Uno ( Relaunched as MTV U ). One of the reasons for raiding VH1's channels was that MTV was having trouble selling their digital channels to cable. This was partially due to the reformatting of MTV2 after promising they would not, and partially due to the sudden and unnecessary reformatting of MTVX as MTV Jams ( now 24/7 Rap and Urban videos ) in 2002. Cable providers simply no longer trusted MTV. VH1 had a little credibility, but it was pissed away after the unnecessary reformatting of the once popular VH1 Classic.
The cancer Spreads, And MTV Causes the Downfall of Cable
MTV likes to take credit for a lot of things. They claim that it was MTV that created the modern reality show in 1992 with "The Real World". Not true. The modern reality show began in 1985 with "Oceanquest", where model and occasional actress Shawn Weatherly was put on a research vessel and required to interact and do dives with the scientists. At one time they took credit for creating the 24 hour music video format ( something they downplay these days ). This is also untrue. A 24/7 video channel called "Sight on Sound" was launched in 1977 on a local cable system in Columbus Ohio. There were two things that MTV could take credit for, but never has. One of them is the rise of cable television. MTV was the channel everyone wanted. It was the "I Want Mt MTV" campaign that made cable attractive to those who did not have it. If not for MTV cable would probably have remained in the outskirts of town, used only by those who could not otherwise pick up the major networks on their roof antenna. MTV made the rest of us aware that there were other channels out there. Channels that we could not get on broadcast television. Channels that we wanted. We wanted cable television because of MTV. Why else would we now be paying for what was once free?
But while MTV can be credited for the rise of cable television, they can also be credited for it's downfall. MTV executives could have cared less that they were supposed to be a music channel. They have not even bothered to change the call letters. It is still called Music TV even though music is rarely seen on the channel. MTV has given various excuses for the format change. One claim is that they had no choice. The popularity of music videos faded and unless they came up with alternative programming then the channel would have failed. Not true. MTV was the most successful channel on cable. On average MTV not only had the highest ratings for a basic cable channel, but attracted most of the 18 to 35 year old viewers to their channel, a demographic desired by most advertisers. In addition, because most of MTV's programming was music videos, it meant that production costs were lower than any other channel. TBS, for example, had to pay for the production of first run movies, of broadcasting the Atlanta Braves games, and of paying for the broadcast rights to reruns and theatrical movies. The record labels paid for the production costs of their music videos. All MTV had to do was play them. Even when record labels began demanding royalties for airing videos, it was only a fraction of the royalties TBS would pay for airing a rerun of "Gilligan's Island" And viewership was on the rise. As more and more cable systems added MTV, more and more viewers were tuning in. The late 80s saw cable expanded to regions that never had it before, and with that MTVs viewership multiplied into the millions. They were more successful than ever when the decision was made to add non-music programming, programming that cost far more per episode to produce than a month's worth of VJ segments. The real reason why MTV began adding non music programming in the 80s? The executives got bored with being limited to music programming, then suddenly Viacom unleashed them to do whatever they wanted. MTV and all the other channels under the MTV Networks banner became their toys, and their viewers became their toys as well.
More recently MTV has pointed to the ratings success of shows like "Jersey Shore" which has brought more money in to the channel than videos ever had. Overall MTV is more successful rating-wise today then it was when it was just music videos. The problem here is that when MTV first started it was designed as a channel that would get low ratings. As I had explained, a cable channel that was added to enough cable systems was a guaranteed money maker even with low ratings. No one expected cable to take off and become as popular as it did. No one expected MTV to pull in the ratings it did so soon after it's launch. MTV beat its expectations. If it's ratings had stagnated in the 80s it would still be here today, making money for whoever owned it. The same thing can be said for MTVs digital channels including MTV2. When satellite uplinks changed to digital signals it became possible to compress five or more channels into one signal. This meant that for each of the channels on the MTV network they got four channels for free. MTV explained as much when they launched M2 and later their other digital channels. It would cost very little extra to launch their digital channels, which is why MTV initially promised they would all be commercial free. MTV and VH1 would be the channels that generated revenue. This promise did not last. In the cases of MTV2 and VH1 Classic, first came the videos, then came the excuse that they needed a format change in order to boost ratings and generate more revenue. Once again, MTV and VH1 could have left all their digital channels the way they were and not lost any money for MTV networks. Their basic excuse was "We got greedy."
What MTV did had an effect on the rest of cable. Niche channels were expected to stick with their genre. Breaking that rule was the equivalent of fraud. Lets say I were to launch The Cat Channel ( TCC ), a 24/7 channel devoted to programming about cats. There are plenty of cat lovers out there who would want to have a channel exclusively about felines. So they all make the effort to get the channel added to their cable systems. The success of TCC was initially due to the grass roots efforts of cat lovers to get that channel on their respective cable systems. Now lets say I decide to air no-cat related programming on TCC. Lets say, reruns of "How I Met Your Mother" Each hour devoted to this programming is an hour without cats, not what my core viewers want to see. Now I decide that programs about cats do not generate enough ratings, so they are quickly phased out. TCC is a channel that airs reruns of network sitcoms with a few movies thrown in. Sure, I am now making more money than a niche channel ever could. But TCC only exists because of the original core viewers. If I had launched TCC as reruns and reality shows, it is unlikely that I would have generated enough interest to get anyone to add the channel in the first place. By changing TCC's format I have not only defrauded cat lovers by exploiting them to get my channel added to cable outlets everywhere, but I have defrauded you, the viewers who could not care about cat programming. Each cable channel in your tier you pay for in your cable bill. Each time a new channel is added to your tier, whether basic cable or digital, your bill goes up slightly. You know that you do not watch every channel on cable. The understanding is suppose to be than all those channels exist because enough of the subscribers in your area wanted it. You were paying a dollar or more for TCC because cat lovers in your area wanted it. Cat lovers were paying for the channels you watch. If no one really wanted yet another rerun and edited movie channel then we are all paying for something we all neither want nor need. For basic cable there was another aspect. The technology for basic cable originally limited it to about 80 channels. In the 80s those channels filled up rather quickly. Once filled up, no new channels could be added unless one of the older ones was dumped. So if I was to get TCC added to any cable system, it would be at the cost of some channel someone else watched.
MTV was able to abandon their niche programming along with the viewers who got it added to their respective cable companies, and there was no repercussions. Other cable channels saw this and decided they wanted to do the same. This is why you no longer see old Hollywood movies on AMC ( American Movie Classics ), nor educational programming on TLC ( The Learning Channel ) and why Court TV turned into Tru TV. This is why you have shows like "Ice Road Truckers" on what is suppose to be The History Channel, and live action shows like "Children's Hospital" on what is suppose to be The Cartoon Network. It is why so many cable channels air reruns of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" including BBC America which was suppose to be British programming only. Not only has MTV encouraged other cable networks to disregard their niches, but the example of MTV2 has encouraged the practice of bait and switch channels. In other words, introducing a niche channel for the sole purpose of getting it added through fans of that genre, then relaunching it as a standard Superstation once it becomes available on a target number of cable systems.
Many of you may ask, so what's the problem. Highly rated shows are what most viewers want to see. The problem? Inevitably what you are left with are channels looking to make money rather than entertain. That means whatever genre is popular and nothing else. Reality television is popular, so now every channel has reality programming. And if everyone is doing the same thing then television tends to get boring. This was the problem back in 1980 when we only had three networks. Westerns were popular in the 50s through 60s, so most of the shows on television were westerns. You didn't like westerns, then tough! Go read a book or something. In the 70s westerns were out and crime dramas were in. So much of the schedule was "Starsky & Hutch", "Charlie's Angels" and "Barnaby Jones" or shows just like that. If you were a western fan then tough. When MTV was launched there was very little music on television. Your favorite singer may have been on television no more than eight minutes combined in an entire year. MTV changed that because at the time it was playing programming that was not in the mainstream. And that's what niche programming did, put shows on the air that were not expected to draw in the biggest ratings. And through that cable was able to introduce many ground breaking shows that the regular networks would have never touched. You would never have seen the likes of "Mystery Science Theater 3000", "South Park", "Junkyard Wars", "Sponge Bob Square Pants", or "The Daily Show" if their respective channels were not looking for niche programming. In the 80s I wanted cable because it had programs I wanted to see that were not on broadcast television. Now three decades later I am paying for a service that mostly airs programming I could have already watched for free on broadcast television and only a few shows I want to see that are original to cable. The excitement is gone because cable and even digital cable have become no different than network television. That's $150 out of my pocket every month for practically nothing.
Thanks a lot MTV.