This weekend, a quiet celebration occurred up on channel 186 (Cablevision
reckoning). The VH1 Classic
channel played host to a weekend filled with of MTV
's most memorable in-house video, although by and large bereft of the music videos that made up the bulk of its programming back in those days. However, the pinnacle of the celebration was the warts-and-all, commercials-included re-airing of MTV's first hour of broadcast, notable also for the complete inability of the broadcast's minders to insert Mark Goodman
's breaks in the right places between the videos. That bit of tape was utterly worth the price of admission.
Latent OCD endemic of all broadcast geeks requires that I say that I wish they'd adjusted it to be an airing of the "first 75 minutes". Y'see, back in 1981, when they were turning up the new service on a previously-unused satellite channel, they couldn't just flip the switch at midnight, because it wouldn't give the cable operators hoping to offer the new channel the chance to make sure it worked properly on their systems before it launched. Thus, the broadcast actually began about fifteen minutes before midnight with raw video of the countdown for a space shuttle launch with the MTV logo superimposed over it, timed to get to liftoff at the stroke of midnight. (In one of the great continuity errors in television, the shuttle countdown somehow resulted in the launch of an Apollo mission, since that was the footage they used for their top-of-the-hour moonwalk ID for the subsequent few years.)
On this weekend's replay, we saw that raw video starting at midnight Monday, and had to wait for it to count down before finally catching John Lack
's "Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll" proclamation at about 12:15 - so we only got about 45 minutes of the first hour of Music Television. That's still quite the artifact, and I'm amazed we got a chance to see it at all.
The celebration was quiet by design. MTV has made a conscious decision to regard its age as virtually unmentionable, in the wake of its last on-air anniversary celebration (its 20th in 2001, which we covered back then
- hey, MTV ain't the only media outlet that forgets its birthdays.) This makes sense from a branding perspective. As a channel dedicated to the pursuits of people younger than 25, nostalgia simply doesn't fit.
Which is probably how the tortured title "MTV 30 On VH1 Classic" came about; it safely insulates the MTV brand from the corrosive power of the word "Classic". VH1 has always been about programming for thirty-and-forty-somethings looking backward, so the idea of a "VH1 Classic" brand will always make sense, while "MTV Classic" never will. Still, as the #MTV30 hashtag
made a valiant attempt at relevance on Twitter, MTV felt compelled to sheepishly acknowledge its age
on its Buzzworthy blog, waiting 'til the mid-afternoon of its anniversary when, I suspect, it thought nobody was looking.
But there's still a few observations I find I have to make regarding the standard mantras inevitably voiced by those who might be excited by an MTV 30th Anniversary celebration of any sort...
- "It didn't play black artists until 1983": This statement probably would come as a surprise to Pauline Black, lead singer of The Selecter, who were played on the first day of broadcast (and for some time afterward.) Ditto for Neville Staple and Lynval Golding of The Specials, who got played twice that day. It also totally ignores J.J. Jackson's presence on the network. This is not to say they didn't blow it when they should've gotten it right, most famously when Jackson nearly quit because the MTV news report on the day Muddy Waters died ignored that news. But they were a rock station back then, and didn't catch on that they should be a pop station until 1983 (when they added Michael Jackson's admittedly rock-friendly "Beat It" and "Billie Jean" videos, not to mention Prince's "Little Red Corvette".) They still had a decided rock lean (as did the pop charts back then) but as pop diverged from rock, MTV diverged with it.
- "They don't play music videos": Except from 3am to 9am Eastern. By switching to reality shows, they wriggled out from under the thumb of the record industry, who finally achieved their goal of charging MTV for the privilege of advertising their product. The record industry is now trying to do the same thing to radio, and the result will be that the record industry will shoot itself in the foot. Again. Music Video will continue to be relegated to low-viewership digital-tier cable channels (like VH1 Classics) unless and until the record companies stop being so greedy. Which'll never happen.
- And then there's the other side of that argument, "they show too many reality shows": Reality shows are cheap to produce and have increased their audience to the point where their ratings rival those of the former Big 3 networks. You can argue mission creep all you'd like, and you'd be correct, but nobody ever got fired for making more money.
So will MTV become the go-to place for music video ever again? Not given the record companies' historically bad decisions; in addition to the costs involved in airing music videos thanks to the greedy stance of the record companies, there's also the simple fact that those record companies' fortunes have fallen enough that it's only pop's superstars that are making worthwhile videos at all, because only they have the budget or the drive to get them done. (This may also have something to do with new bands realizing that music video costs were coming directly out of their pocket; the most inventive of them, like OK Go, have found ways to make interesting videos on the cheap.)
There is another way to go about things, though, and it's somewhat evocative of the reason the BBC
has such a wonderful archive of session recordings...in short, if one owns the performance, one doesn't have to pay to air it.
Enter the MTV Supervideo program, which takes music from interesting new artists and throws a (moderately) star-studded collection of talent at it. Their first attempt, back in November, put Anna Kendrick
in the middle of a video for LCD Soundsystem's "Pow Pow"
that attracted some notice
, and their latest showcases Best Coast
's "Our Deal", from their Crazy For You album, in a video directed by Drew Barrymore
and starring a bunch of vaguely familiar faces.
Will MTV rise again to proclaim itself the once and future king of music video? Looks like there actually may be a pulse in the old girl yet. Time - and profits - will tell.