Affirmative action on the playlist - An analysis of the representation of African-Americans on MTV

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1999

17 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The History of MTV

3. MTV as a Powerful Gatekeeper

4. The Racism Debate of the 80s

5. Analysis of MTV’s playlist from 1989 to 1999
5.1 Methods
5.2 Results Hypothesis 1
5.3 Results Hypothesis 2
5.4 Results Hypothesis 3

6. Conclusion and Questions for Future Research


1. Introduction

MTV – an “all encompassing mediator of popular culture” (Goodwin, 1992) or as the Washington Post once put it “perhaps the most influential single cultural product of the [eighties]” (McGrath 1996, p. 8). A trademark that has become a synonym for modern television, fast moving pictures and even a certain lifestyle. ‘MTV generation’, ‘MTV-like’, ‘I want my MTV’ etc. But MTV is more than entertainment for teenagers and music with colorful pictures around it – It is not only the world’s fastest growing network but also a powerful gatekeeper. Whoever makes it onto the playlist of the network can expect their CD sales to skyrocket and his concerts to be sold out. But the question is, is MTV giving everybody the same chance?

This research paper deals with the question of how black people are represented in the music programming of MTV. Although MTV today features more game, quiz and celebrity shows and less music videos than it did in the 1980s, it can still be considered ‘Music Television’ and has 50 different titles in rotation each week.

To find out more about the representation of African-Americans on MTV, the following hypotheses will be tested:

H1: The percentage of black artists on MTV’s playlist has increased significantly over the last decade with a particular strong increase in the middle of the 1990s.

H2: The percentage of other minorities (like Asians, Hispanics, etc.) in contrast has not increased over the last 10 years.

H3: The percentage of black artists on MTV’s playlist is higher in February (Black History Month) than in another random month.

In the first chapters, however, MTV’s history will be briefly examined as well as its role as a strong gatekeeper in the music industry. Additionally, the big controversy that took place in the early years of MTV, when several black artists protested the network’s “impenetrable racial barrier” (Idowu 1999, p. 41) will be talked about.

There is a satisfying amount of literature about MTV, unfortunately most of it is quite old and only a small amount of it deals with the issue of race within MTV’s programming (and if it does, it usually only deals with the famous dispute of the 80s and not the status quo). In the last chapter not only a conclusion but also suggestions for future research about this and related topics will be presented.

2. The History of MTV

MTV got on the air exactly at midnight on August 1st, 1981. The first video that was aired was ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’ by The Buggles and of course that choice wasn’t unintentional. The concept of a 24-hour channel dedicated only to music videos was a revolutionary one, considering that there weren’t too many music videos around at that point of time. Only few (mostly British) bands had discovered this medium as an art form and produced small film clips to their songs.

Also came the arrival of MTV in an era shortly after the ‘great depression’ in the music industry in 1979 – although nobody would have thought that it would prove itself as one of the remedies against it (Denisoff 1989, p. 1; 54).

Most insiders, however, see January 1983 as the ‘real’ launch of MTV, because it was then that MTV got into the cable markets of Manhattan and Los Angeles[1]. These markets were very important, because now many potential advertisers could actually see the network and MTV was finally present in the two big media centers of North America and received much more attention nationwide (Grossberg 1993, p. 51). Another indicator of a new era for MTV is the fact that Billboard – the most important magazine of the recording industry - started printing MTV’s video clip rotations at that time (Denisoff 1989, p. 96).

After that MTV became increasingly successful and revenues skyrocketed. Advertisers like Pepsi, Anheuser-Busch, Levi’s and American Express found out that MTV was the ideal vehicle to reach young and trend-setting demographics. Record companies also recognized MTV’s potential to influence the style and taste of the younger generation and got more and more interested in MTV’s concept of ‘All music, all the time’. Before that they were hard to convince that music videos can be as interesting as a live performance on TV (Matzer 1996, p. 48).

On New Year’s Day in 1985 at 6:00 p.m. EST MTV’s first spin-off channel ‘Video Hits One’ (VH-1) was launched. It was (and still is) aimed at the 25-54 demographic, which MTV felt to be less and less served by the original network. In the course of 1985 MTV’s Nielsen ratings, however, continued to drop. MTV complained that its target audience (12-17 and 18-24 years) was underrepresented in the Nielsen sample, but finally took steps to prevent the numbers from declining even more. The playlist was cut down to 80 clips per week and focused more towards the old rock format while the Adult Contemporary elements that had gained influence were moved to VH-1 (Denisoff 1989, p. 193, 238)

In the summer of 1987, MTV Europe was launched in association with the British Telecom. The first video clip that aired on this channel was ‘Money for nothing’ by Dire Straits featuring the meanwhile infamous line ‘I want my MTV’. Although at first very oriented towards its London homebase, MTV Europe in the following years tried to generate an pan-European feeling by having a VJ from (almost) every of the western European countries and reporting on the music scenes of the different countries as well.

In the following years, MTV gained a loyal following, partly because of its quick adoption of emerging music trends like Hiphop or Alternative music. Again and again MTV was accused of racism (see chapter 4), sexism (Kaplan 1987, Lewis 1990) and payola (Banks 1996) but neither these critics nor other networks trying to compete with MTV were successful in stopping its triumphal procession in the 1980s and 90s.

MTV began embracing urban Hip Hop culture with the launch of the specialty show ‘Yo!MTV Raps’ in 1988. This show was the network’s first outlet for rap artists, but it was still unthinkable to see them in the ordinary rotation. In 1993 MTV added another Hiphop format with ‘MTV Jams’ and by that time black artists without the crossover appeal of a Michael Jackson or a Whitney Houston started to be able to make it into MTV’s playlist (Idowu 1999, p.42).

Today MTV is available in over 63 million U.S. households (over 270 million worldwide) and has several international spin-off channels like MTV Europe, MTV Asia or MTV Australia. In the U.S. a new channel called M2 was launched – a kind of ‘old school MTV’, focusing more on airing video clips than on the half-hour non-music formats MTV had got to rely on over the years (‘The Real World’, ‘Beavis & Butt-head’, ‘Singled Out’, etc.).

But MTV also has huge plans for the bright digital future of television: On June 30, 1998 MTV announced its first deal with a digital cable operator for its series of new digital channels called ‘The Suite’. The U.S. consortium Telesynergy agreed on distributing up to 10 new music-video channels in markets such as Toledo, Denver, Wichita and Columbus (Hay 1998, p. 8).

The new channels available in some markets right now are MTV ‘X’ (featuring hard rock/heavy metal music), MTV ‘S’ (Latin music), VH-1 Soul (R&B), VH-1 Smooth (Jazz and new age) and VH-1 Country. ‘The Suite’ also includes MTV, VH-1 and the free-form channel M2, other spin-offs such as MTV ‘Indie’ (featuring Independent/Alternative music) are also planned (Hay 1998, p. 92).


[1] Getting into these markets was mostly an achievement of the heavy ‘I want my MTV’ campaign, which was launched to convince cable operators to carry MTV and which featured artists such as John Cougar Mellencamp, Sting, Pat Benatar and others (Denisoff 1989, p. 82; 95)

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Affirmative action on the playlist - An analysis of the representation of African-Americans on MTV
Ohio University  (School of Telecommunication)
Multicultural Broadcasting
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
654 KB
History of MTV, MTV as a powerful gatekeeper, racism debate of the 80s, analysis of MTV s playlist
Quote paper
Christoph Koch (Author), 1999, Affirmative action on the playlist - An analysis of the representation of African-Americans on MTV, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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