MTV: 40 Years of Music Videos, Reality TV, and Ridiculousness

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Hey! This week’s episode is one of my favorites. It’s a case study on MTV. At its peak, MTV was the center of pop culture. At its low points, MTV was an excuse for a business. I’m joined by friend of the pod, Zack O’Malley Greenburg. Here are a few highlights from our conversation.

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Why MTV was a category creator

Before MTV, most of the music on TV was live performances. Artists went on American Bandstand, The Phil Donahue Show, and Soul Train. Some artists made videos (known as “promotional clips” at the time), but were few and far between.

The modern music video didn’t exist. Neither did the expectation for record labels to give their videos to a brand new cable TV network for free! But MTV was a category creator. It’s rise was the perfect storm of ongoing trends:

– untapped teenage market
– rise of cable TV
– improved special effects

If MTV were a venture-backed startup, its pitch deck would have had a 2×2 matrix with the MTV logo solely featured in the upper-right quadrant (and rightfully so.)

MTV started with a bang, but it only had a library of around 200 videos. The network sold just $500,000 in ad revenue in its first year. While several British artists like Duran Duran and The Police leaned into MTV as a new distribution channel, several American record labels told MTV to kick rocks. The labels felt that their music should be paid for. Sound familiar?

Despite its early struggles, MTV’s fate improved after two big moments: 1982’s “I Want My MTV” campaign and 1983’s “Thriller” music video by Michael Jackson.

I Want My MTV was the network’s campaign to get cable providers to add MTV to its lineup. Both fans and artists, like Mick Jagger and David Bowie, picked up their phones and made calls. It proved that MTV was the gold standard on customer loyalty. The network executives were confident that once its audience had access, the viewership would translate to sales for MTV’s suppliers—the record labels.

Yet MTV needed something more. In 1983, MTV was sadly reluctant to play music from Black artists. But the tides started to turn after Michael Jackson. He released the music video for “Billie Jean,” which paved the way for his 14-minute short film, “Thriller.” MTV technically co-financed the project—a rare move for the network—but it paid off for everyone involved. Thriller became the best-selling album of all time, MTV went to another level, and so did music videos. Michael’s hit paved the way for Madonna, hair metal bands, the VMAs, MTV’s golden era.

the shift away from music videos

The music video boom was a great business for most of the 80s and early 90s. The videos were bigger and better. They drove customers to buy albums at the record store. They inspired the film industry to make teen-oriented movies. And the record labels and MTV eventually reached a financial agreement for compensation. Everybody ate.

But as optionality increased on cable TV, the MTV execs realized the sad truth: if fans don’t like a particular video or genre, they change the channel. And if they change channels, there’s a risk they may not come back during that viewing session.

MTV tested the waters with a game show Remote Control (1987), but it went all in with 1992’s The Real World. The soapy reality show started with a bang. The early ratings were 3x higher than music videos, and the show’s structure meant that viewers stayed to watch the entire thing. Its success sparked the slow, then sharp, pivot away from music videos and towards reality TV shows. With their low cost and high demand, the economics were too good to ignore.

That’s when the complaints began to grow. “Remember when MTV actually played videos?” “Reality TV ruined the network.” “I miss the old MTV.” Unfortunately, there’s a disconnect between a consumer’s idealized statements and the consumer’s actual behavior. MTV would have kept playing videos if more people watched music videos than reality shows, but that wasn’t the case!

These statements echo broader consumer disconnects across entertainment. Moviegoers complain that Hollywood doesn’t make original blockbusters, but fans don’t show up for those movies as they showed up for Spider-Man: No Way Home. Readers envision themselves reading more longform thinkpieces, but the clickbait generates much more traffic. People say they miss when ESPN focused on SportsCenter highlights, but the ratings show that viewers prefer to watch Stephen A. Smith debating any and everyone.

MTV has heard criticism about its programming since it started. A lot of it is valid. But, its decision to be less reliant on music video content helped the network withstand the music industry’s decline in the 2000s. Fans may have slowed down their trips to Tower Records, but didn’t slow down their desire to watch Jackass.

In 2009, MTV had its most popular show ever, Jersey Shore. Its most-watched Video Music Awards were in 2011. The network was still in good shape.

But as cord-cutting and social media took off, MTV lost its cultural influence.

the ridiculousness of Ridiculousness

Today, most of MTV’s programming is filled by Ridiculousness, a show hosted by MTV veteran Rob Dyrdek, who is joined by a celebrity cast who watch and comment on blooper real clips. It’s cheap, easy to produce, and give MTV’s older audience the comfort food it wants.

My issue isn’t that MTV shows the same thing over and over. Most popular cable TV networks—Fox News, ESPN, MSNBC— do the same. But my bigger issue is… why does it have to be Ridiculousness? Why THIS show?

In 2022, Bravo had nearly twice the average viewership as MTV. Bravo has dominated with The Real Housewives, The Vanderpump Rules, Below Deck; the list goes on. Bravo even has its own BravoCon convention. The network is dominating a lane that MTV used to own.

The same audience that watched TRL 20+ years ago is the same audience that now watched Bravo. MTV should have owned this lane the same way that VH1 has Love & Hip-Hop.

The cultural cache MTV had for its first few decades was unmatched. We may never see another company quite like it.

If you liked this breakdown, check out the full episode. Zack and I also talked about:

– Yo MTV Raps!
– the VMAs
– which artists won and lost the most from MTV

Listen to the episode here.

Dan Runcie

Dan Runcie

Founder of Trapital

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