Music-Free Television: A Timeline of MTV’s Video (De)Evolution
MTV announced last week that they were removing the “Music Television” slogan from their branding, to better reflect their increasing lack of music coverage. For those of us who grew up on music videos, we’re left wondering how MTV went from a network showing music videos 24 hours a day, to a network that might show an hours worth. Here’s a look at the network’s systematic reimagining.
August 1, 1981: MTV went on the air for the first time, showing music videos 24/7. Things were anything but smooth, off and on the camera. See for yourself.
September 1, 1987: In the fall of 1987, realizing they couldn’t just show music videos all the time, MTV launched a trio of new shows: Week In Rock, Club MTV and Remote Control, marking the first shift in music video-specific programming. Now MTV had a news show, a dance show, and a game show in their stable of programming.
Music Video Watch: Though they were all straightforward, MTV launched five big music video shows in this era, including the alt rock-centric 120 Minutes, Heavy Metal Mania, We’re Dancin’ (for New Wave junkies) and the Top 20 Video Countdown, among others.
The Next Step
After MTV diversified their programming, true celebrity personalities began to rise with the MTV ranks. Not just tuning into the next video, people were equally as interested in on-camera figures such as Julie Brown (Just Say Julie), Downtown Julie Brown (Club MTV), Kurt Loder (The Week In Rock) and Fab 5 Freddy (Yo! MTV Raps).
June 2, 1991: The day the animation invasion hit MTV. Beginning with Liquid Television in 1991, MTV rode a wave of animation success which included bigger hits such as Beavis and Butthead (1993), Daria (1998), and Celebrity Death Match (1997, cult favorites such as Aeon Flux (1995), The Head (1994), and The Maxx (1995), not to mention obscure series including Downtown (1999) and Undergrads (2001). This also signaled a larger, emerging trend at MTV–shows did not have to explicitly engage music content for them to gain popularity on the network
May 21, 1992: MTV airs Season 0 of The Real World, one of the first “reality” shows to hit television, and really, the beginning of the end for MTV (as far as music goes). The Real World initially began with 5 strangers spending a weekend together in a New York loft, but in 1993, it was expanded to seven characters living together of a span of several months. The success of The Real World not only spawned 22 seasons over 18 years, but it also led to numerous other reality shows infiltrating MTV, including Road Rules, RW/RR Challenge, and eventually influence the post-2000 boom of reality programming.
Fall 1993: The State and The Jon Stewart Show both debuted, further expanding MTVs range of programming, and establishing MTV as a spot for general entertainment. These were MTV’s first comedy shows to gain any sort of meaningful notoriety. The State only lasted 3 seasons, largely in part to its rabid cult following. And despite being MTV’s second highest-rated show, The Jon Stewart Show only lasted two seasons. But more importantly, it laid out the blueprint for future shows, such as The Jenny McCarthy Show, The Tom Green Show, and Jackass.
Music Video Watch: MTV continued to expand its music video offerings between 1987 and 1994, adding 9 new themed music video shows, while retaining most of the previously established shows. Highlights from this era include Headbanger’s Ball, MTV Unplugged, hip-hop dance show The Grind, Alternative Nation and request show Dial MTV.
The Golden Era
By the mid-90s, MTV had comfortably transitioned into a network that placed music videos front and center, but surrounded it with off-base programming to keep everything fresh. The Real World was well entrenched as a cultural phenomenon, animated shows had become expected, while Singled Out became MTVs next breakout show. The third evolution of MTV began around this time, highlighted by competitive dating shows, more reality television, and the introduction of MTVs most important program.
August 17, 1995: This is the day that of Yo! MTV Raps essentially died. If the success of The Real World failed to set off any alarms regarding the demise of the music video, then the cancellation of Yo! MTV Raps had to worry at least a few people. Hip Hop had spent years struggling to gain steady airplay on the network, and now its flagship show was getting stripped down and pushed into the middle of the night. Sure, it “came back” under various monikers and formats, but it was never the same.
September 14,1998: Merging two previous shows, MTV Live and Total Request, the debut of Total Request Live signaled many things for MTV. While previous watchers of MTV had been into alternative rock, electronic, and hip-hop, the emerging generation of teenagers were looking for a source of straight pop. When TRL debuted, allowing viewers to vote for their favorite videos, it quickly became MTVs most popular show, not only catapulting Carson Daly to fame, but also proving that music videos still had some viability after all.
Music Video Watch: MTV still had a healthy stable of celebrity VJs, including Bill Bellamy, Kennedy, Idalis and Daisy Fuentes. Hip-hop was starting to gain airplay on the backs of Bad Boy and Death Row Records. However, there were already complaints that MTV wasn’t playing enough videos. So Total Request came on the scene as a pre-recorded, dinnertime precursor to its live counterpart, MTV Live tried to make music videos significant, Say What let you sing along, and 12 Angry Viewers let a group of citizen panelists critique music videos. But not even that could stop the demise of many shows, including the Top 20 Video Countdown, Yo! MTV Raps, 120 Minutes, Alternative Nation, MTV News and Headbangers Ball. See a movement brewing here?
The New Millennium
By 2000, video shows were becoming increasingly scarce, except for TRL and a couple of stray programs, many of which didn’t even show whole videos anymore. Instead, the rise of reality television continued, squeezing out music videos by any means necessary. Also notable was the increase in meta-programs, which covered the lives of the musicians more than their music.
March 5, 2002: The success MTV found in documenting the life of Ozzy Osbourne and family on The Osbourne’s ushered in a new sub-genre of reality television for MTV: celebrity reality. Soon we would be having the lives of people like Ashlee Simpson, Bam Margera, Rob Dyrdek, Diddy and Jessica Simpson broadcast non-stop.
July 11, 1999: It says something about the impending doom of music videos, when meta-program Making The Video becomes more popular than the finished product. This program also gave rise to pseudo-reality shows such as Cribs and Diary.
August 10, 2001: MTV finds success with cheaply produced, dating game shows that they air in the afternoons against shows on other networks such as Blind Date. What was once a block reserved for music videos, quickly became a wasteland where contestants were invited to date other people’s mothers, go on a date with multiple people at once, or consider leaving their significant other for new love.
September 28, 2004: As even TRL began to wane in influence, MTV discovered yet another way to “innovate” in the reality space, by creating a scripted reality show with Laguna Beach. Not that The Real World and its spinoffs hadn’t already devolved into this realm, but Laguna Beach barely made an effort to make it look real. Not that it mattered–teenage girls everywhere ate it up.
Video Watch: TRL was unquestionably the most important music video show from this era, with hip-hop request show Direct Effect lagging in a distant second. You couldn’t escape N*Sync, the Backstreet Boys and their million clones. MTV also developed a flurry of video shows between 2000 and 2005, but many of them were short-lived, and most (if not all) of the older, established shows died.
It’s impossible to describe everything that happened after the 1-2 punch of Laguna Beach and The Hills, but let’s just say that music videos never stood a chance. What’s left with is a post-apocalyptic landscape of reality television, competitions and game shows that have numbed us all to the point where we get excited by Jersey Shore–not because it’s good, but because it looked remotely authentic (spoiler: it wasn’t).
May 31, 2006: LC, Whitney, Audrina, Heidi, Spencer and Co. escaped the restraints of high school and parents and curfews, and took the possibilities of a money-filled, responsibility-free life to great new heights on The Hills. It also made MTVs target audience care even less about music videos. The music idols of yore had been replaced.
November 16, 2008: Not even, TRL, MTV’s most important show could avoid the C word (ahem, cancellation). By the time TRL went off the air, Carson Daly was long gone, and the show was an afterthought in the American zeitgeist. We now had YouTube. But hey, it was fun.
Music Video Watch: Did you not just read this whole thing?