How MTV stopped playing music — and lost its relevance06/29/2021
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As one of the five original VJs who launched MTV into the Moonman stratosphere 40 years ago, on Aug. 1, 1981, Alan Hunter helped put the video-bingeing network on the music map.
But when he trekked down to Daytona Beach, Fla., to cover “the chaos that was spring break” for the first time in 1986, little did he know that it was the beginning of the end for the M — music — in MTV.
“I was the VJ that loved being out of the studio the most, so I was the one they sent to spring break to be a part of the thousands of screaming young guys cracking beers over my head,” Hunter, 64, told The Post.
“And that was kind of the beginning of different kinds of shows that you would see. That was when MTV decided that they couldn’t just be a video jukebox forever. MTV began to train their cameras on the lifestyle of the young folks that were watching MTV.”
Thirty-five years after that coverage, there is a whole generation of young people who don’t know that MTV ever played music videos. Which helps explain why young pop stars such as Billie Eilish, Harry Styles and Megan Thee Stallion didn’t even bother to show up for the Video Music Awards last year. To them — and many others in the music industry and beyond — MTV simply isn’t relevant as the cultural force it used to be back when Madonna was humping around in a wedding gown to “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs, when Kurt Cobain was beautifully deconstructing Nirvana on “MTV Unplugged” in 1993, and Beyoncé and Jay-Z went public as a couple on “Total Request Live” in 2002.
We just don’t want our MTV anymore.
“The MTV that people remember from the 1980s was a wonderful thing,” said former MTV producer Michael Alex. But, he added, nostalgia doesn’t pay the bills: “There’s the cultural loss versus [the fact that] MTV was an ongoing business trying to survive. The channel hung on as long as it could [to music].”
Many single out “The Real World” — which premiered in 1992 and is largely credited (and sometimes blamed) for jump-starting the reality-television boom — for turning MTV into the “Teen Mom” and “Ridiculousness” universe that it is today. But that movement was already in motion.
“I did this thing called ‘Amuck in America,’ ” said Hunter, who was the last of the original VJs to leave, in 1987. “It was a trip across the country for 30 days doing sort of man-on-the-street comedy, so that was kind of the first of its kind. I drove with a very beautiful model in a Ford Thunderbird and a big RV traveling behind us. It was total MTV ‘Road Rules’ craziness.”
Then there came longer-form specialty music programming such as “Headbangers Ball,” “Yo! MTV Raps” and the alt-rock arbiter “120 Minutes.” And early non-music programs, including the Cindy Crawford-hosted “House of Style,” the game show “Remote Control” and the animated series “Liquid Television” — which spawned “Beavis and Butt-head” — were outliers in an all-video-all-the-time world.
“They felt like they were the exception to the rule. They were these great accent points,” said Alex, who, from 1989 to 2007, was a producer on everything from “The Week in Rock” to “House of Style” before heading up the MTV News digital side. “Early on, those non-music-video shows were sort of inspired by the culture. They felt like they belonged in the space. They were completely not like anything else out there. They were exciting ideas. To be in the halls of MTV and say, ‘Listen, I’ve got some great, cool new idea that kids will love,’ no one’s gonna say, ‘Well, is it about music?’ ”
But when “The Real World” came along, Alex admits that it wasn’t exactly considered “cool” by him and others at MTV. “I was one of those who was not particularly interested in ‘The Real World.’ That was not my bag,” he said of the groundbreaking series, which was inspired by PBS’s “An American Family.” “And I was not the only person who thought that. But there were plenty of other people who said, ‘Well look, kids are intrigued by these people.’ But my disliking it or not being interested in it wasn’t about my thinking, ‘This isn’t music — it doesn’t belong on MTV.’ ”
And since MTV was all about change from the very beginning, there wasn’t stiff resistance internally to the initial influx of non-music programming. “The philosophical struggle didn’t really start to show up until the number of music-video hours were being drastically cut,” said Alex of the mid-’90s shift. “When the video hours started getting cut, when you couldn’t just turn on your television and catch a half-hour of music videos, that was when it started.”
Over time, MTV became known for Pauly Shore and then “Jersey Shore” as much as it used to be known for Michael Jackson and then Janet Jackson. “I would cover the Grammys, and I would go on the red carpet with Snooki,” said former MTV News senior writer and editor Gil Kaufman. “Snooki would be interviewing Katy Perry. Those people kind of became the face of MTV in the same way that [Duran Duran’s] Simon Le Bon or Boy George were the face of MTV at the beginning.”
Although “I don’t think anybody was particularly excited about it,” Kaufman said, “we understood that that’s the direction that things were going and that those decisions were being made in suites that were several floors above us. So you couldn’t turn it around, you know what I mean?”
The M that played the biggest factor in MTV’s change in direction was money. “I mean, MTV needed to make money, ultimately, and you can make more money with programming that sponsors can hang their hats on,” said Hunter. “And that was what the ’90s were all about.”
While MTV began in the early days of cable TV, it wasn’t the only game on the remote control by that time. “The cable world exploded in the ’90s,” said Hunter. “MTV had to change because there did become a lot of competition for eyeballs. You couldn’t continue to just peddle the same thing.”
And since blocks of music videos weren’t designed to prevent viewers from channel-surfing, the ratings for them ultimately suffered. “When you’re playing music videos, every two and half or three minutes you’re giving people an opportunity to go change the channel and see what else is on,” said Alex. “I’m gonna be flipping around after every music video if I don’t love the next song.”
Then, of course, the music-video game changed completely for MTV when YouTube launched in 2005. “Once YouTube came to be, it was all over,” said Alex. “YouTube was MTV on steroids — minus the VJs.”
Even beyond the music, though, MTV doesn’t capture the zeitgeist of today’s youth the way it once did. In fact, it’s barely on the radar of the TikTok generation. “I have two teenage kids, and they know that I worked for MTV, but they’ve never seen MTV,” said Kaufman, who, after working at the network for 15-plus years, is now a senior contributing writer at Billboard. “They wouldn’t even know where to look for it.”
Still, Alex believes that MTV could one day come back to relevance — and music: “Of course there’s a way to bring it back to music,” he said. “But what it would be like would probably be very different than what it has been. It may need a refresh, but I think it’s possible.”
But for Hunter — who is now a host on SiriusXM channels ’80s on 8, Classic Rewind and Volume — it’s a wrap: “People nowadays say, ‘Hey, what the hell happened to MTV? Can we get it back?’ To which I say, ‘Why? Why would you want it back?’ You’ve got YouTube and the Internet. You can watch any damn video you want to. You don’t need MTV to tell you what to look at anymore.”
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