In 1995, The Simpsons premiered one of its episodes which flashes forward several decades (no, this isn’t the one that predicted the Trump presidency), and among the gags is one about how in the future “the Fox Network turned into a hardcore sex channel so gradually that no one noticed.” While that hasn’t come to pass (yet), if you do want to see a TV network that metamorphosed at an immeasurably slow pace, we need only look at MTV – assuming anyone still is. Though far from a hardcore sex channel, what MTV has now become is pretty much indescribable – and not in a good way.
One look at the schedule for any given week of current MTV programming and one sees little besides rerun after rerun (after rerun after rerun, often for twenty-four hours uninterrupted) of some half-hour program titled Ridiculousness. The very definition of cheap airtime filler, the show is just the no-name host and quasi-celebrity panelists making fun of embarrassing homemade clips shot on smartphones that have been posted online, essentially just a more acidic America’s Funniest Home Videos.
While there’s undoubtedly a market for low-denominator (or no-denominator) entertainment such as this, you’ll never convince us that there could be this much demand for this one show. What MTV is mostly offering now frankly might as well be a test pattern. So just how in the name of Billy Idol did MTV – a network that once revolutionized popular culture, defined a generation, and whose original formula was never successfully duplicated by anyone else – end up in this place?
Promising – and for a while, delivering – just music videos twenty-four hours a day, MTV began quietly in 1981, but became a phenomenon within a couple of years. However, by 1985, the novelty of music videos had peaked (even weekly network show Friday Night Video turned a good portion of their scant ninety weekly minutes over to yappy celebrity guest hosts). So MTV decided to throw a monkey wrench into the works. Or rather, a Monkee wrench: they began airing reruns of The Monkees, along with the quirky, UK sitcom The Young Ones. Since the British show included musical guests (such as Motorhead, The Damned and Madness) and The Monkees was in many ways the evolutionary ancestor of music videos, the network wasn’t yet straying too far from their original intentions.
MTV continued to phase in half-hour programs, including reruns of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. The classic British series may feature some of the most innovative and influential (and funny) TV comedy of all time, but unlike The Young Ones it had already been broken in the US fourteen years earlier (by PBS, that channel your grandmother loves), and had no real connection to popular music. This suggested that MTV was quite consciously looking to fill more and more airtime with content other than music videos. Along with the network’s first original non-music series, the game show Remote Control, it was even more obvious that MTV was now moving towards programming related to general youth-orientated pop culture, not music exclusively.
Striking that balance in the early ‘90s worked very well for MTV, who were then creating popular shows as diverse as The Real World and Beavis and Butthead as well as rolling out their extensive coverage of the 1992 presidential election, which supposedly brought a record number of 18-to-34-year-olds into voting booths that year. Yet music – and music videos – remained the network’s main focus, helped largely by the alternative boom of the time. Even as the network continued to produce original non-music programming – more cartoons, game shows, and serialized docu-series, as well as scripted comedies and even dramas – music maintained a strong presence thanks to Total Request Live (TRL), which for a decade beginning in 1998 became a must-watch daily ritual for the network’s next generation of viewers.
Eventually, though, music videos on MTV were only turning up in random hours here and there before being pretty much phased out entirely. This did not go unnoticed (in 2007 Justin Timberlake even made a public plea live on the air for MTV to bring music videos back). Yet despite losing what was once their main platform, music videos have hardly disappeared or even abated: not only is there a music video for every single song in the current Billboard Top 20, but by watching most of them it’s clear that just as much money, time and effort is going into creating them as ever was.
Any fan that wants to watch any of these any time would know to head right over to YouTube (or even just Google). However, not that many people are aware that, perhaps ironically, MTV currently has two offshoot channels that show music videos close to 24/7: MTV Classic, which features videos from the ‘80s through the 2000s, and MTV Live which showcases current hits. Yet neither of them features on-camera announcers, clever promos or bumpers, interactive contests, or any of the other elements that once created the sense of community that drew so many viewers to the original MTV.
About which, in addition to the endless and obvious filler, MTV proper continues to create some original programming, most of which are just endless extensions of their stalwart Real World and Jersey Shore reality franchises. MTV has become such a well-known brand name that it’s unlikely to ever be retired as long as it’s creating some – any – profit. But the likelihood of music videos ever making a comeback on the original channel seems, at best, low (at least in 2010 they dropped the original “Music Television” from their iconic logo – truth in advertising should still carry some weight).