What happens to the 'M' in MTV? A look at the changes in MTV's programming

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 1998

19 Pages, Grade: 1- (A-)


Table Of Contents

1. “I don’t want my MTV anymore” - Introduction

2. “Video Killed the Radio Star” - Historical overview

3. “Madonna vs. Beavis & Butthead” – How much music does MTV need?

4. “The times they are a-changing” – New MTV Services
4.1 M2
4.2 The Suite

Appendix 1 – MTV schedule August 1991

Appendix 2 - MTV Europe schedule 1/1/1997
CET Program

Appendix 3 - MTV schedule (November 9 – November 16, 1998)

1. “I don’t want my MTV anymore” - Introduction

A couple of months ago I had the chance to talk to the pop critic and founder of the Rolling Stone Magazine Greil Marcus doing an interview for a German radio station. When I asked him, what he thought of the recent HipHop videos, he answered, “ In the United States MTV doesn’t show many music videos anymore. They show date shows, game shows or celebrities playing volleyball on the beach shows. Videos are shown only in the middle of the night, when I can’t watch them”. I had noticed a similar trend on MTV Europe but wasn’t aware that MTV’s move towards non-music programming was even more severe in the United States. Greil Marcus is certainly not the only one complaining about the lack of music in “Music Television”. Even Bart Simpson during the beginning of one episode of “The Simpsons” writes a grumpy “In don’t want my MTV anymore”[1] on the blackboard in his classroom (Stein 1997, p. 103).

But what has led to the focus of MTV on non-music programming? Or is the trend even reversing and MTV is going back its roots? What about the new spin-off channels MTV started to offer in the past? This paper takes a look at the changes in MTV’s programming within the last couple of years, at the new programs of this season and at the historical development of this interesting network.

Unfortunately most of the literature about MTV is focusing on the content of the video clips and on the cultural impact the network has made instead of its programming tactics. Most of the books also only examined the MTV of the 80s. Only very little research has been done about the networks development during the 1990s, maybe because it isn’t such a new phenomenon anymore as it was back then. I tried hard, but unfortunately I could not get a hold of detailed MTV schedules of the past and therefore can not offer any quantitative data or percentages about the change towards non-music programming. In the appendix, however, a few schedules from different sources are presented, which may give the reader a general idea about the changes in MTV’s programming over the years.

2. “Video Killed the Radio Star” - Historical overview

MTV got on the air exactly at midnight on August 1st 1981. The first video clip that was aired was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles and of course that choice wasn’t completely 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 a few (mostly British) bands had discovered this medium as an art form and produced small film clips to their songs.

Also the arrival of MTV came 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 in to the cable markets of Manhattan and Los Angeles[2]. 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”, after they were first 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 off-spin channel “Video Hits One” (VH-1) was launched. It was (and still is) aimed at the 25-54 demographic, MTV felt was less and less served by the original network. In the course of 1985 MTV’s Nielson ratings, however dropped further and further. MTV complained, that its target audience (12-17 and 18-24 years) was underrepresented in the Nielson 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 to 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 second half of the 1980s 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 (Levy 1983), sexism (Kaplan 1987) and payola (Banks 1996) but neither these critics nor other networks trying to compete with MTV were successful in stopping triumphal procession over the last 15 years.

Today MTV is available in over 63 million U.S. households (over 270 million worldwide) and has several more spin-off channels like MTV Asia or MTV Australia. About MTV’s new satellite channel M2 and its multiplexed programs called “The Suite” I will talk later on.

3. “Madonna vs. Beavis & Butthead” – How much music does MTV need?

In 1988 MTV started using two techniques typical for broadcast networks or independent TV stations: Dayparting and stripping[3]. By this one could recognize a departure from MTV’s early “narrowcasting” approach toward the reach of a bigger, more heterogeneous audience (Goodwin 1993, p. 57).

About the same time MTV started programming something else than just back to back music videos. The first hype of the new medium of music videos was gone and MTV tried to keep its viewers interested and tried to reduce channel hopping by scheduling longer programs than the 3-minute long clips. The first non-music programs to be aired were shows from British television (like “the Tube” or “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”) or from the broadcast networks (“Saturday Night Live” or “The Young Ones”). But MTV also started to produce own shows, which have had less and less to do with music: comedies, game shows, a movie magazine and so on (Goodwin 1993, p. 53).

This trend continued into the 1990s with the only difference that MTV aired less and less programs which it hadn’t produced itself. One of the few exceptions in the recent past was the teenage ‘dramedy’ show “My so-called life” which MTV has bought for reruns from ABC in 1995. Also the show was canceled by ABC after the first season due to bad ratings, the success of the reruns on MTV were enourmous and a lot of fans demanded new episodes.

Famous examples of successful own non-music shows MTV produced in the 90s are “MTV Singled out” (a noisy date show hosted by Jenny McCarthy), “The Real World” (a real life soap opera featuring seven strangers that lived in a house and had their lives taped) and of course “Beavis & Butt-head”. In this show actually short sequences of video clips are shown but only to give the two animated protagonists who sit on a couch in front of the TV something to comment and nag about.

At first all these shows were very successful and pushed the old concept of MTV (“All music, all the time”) far into the background. The reason behind this was MTV’s wish to keep viewers around for a longer period of time. Channel surfing of course is a major problem for a network airing 10-15 segments every our, which are each only a few minutes long. As soon as a video comes on the viewer doesn’t like, he or she is likely to grab the remote control. With 30 minute or half-hour long shows like “Singled Out” or “My So-called Life” this happens less often, giving MTV the opportunity to build better long-term viewership. Distinguished non-music programs also increased MTV’s print space in local cable listings (Boehlert 1996, p. 19).

Within the last years, criticism of MTV’s new strategy got louder and louder. “Don’t call yourself MTV anymore” demanded angry viewers via Email from the network and an increasing numbers of web pages that complained about MTV’s mass of non-music programming. “Yet despite the welling demand for more music on MTV, videos were the worst-rated programming on the channel” (Stein 1997, p. 103).


[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)

[2] ‘Dayparting’ means dividing the day in di fferent segments and schedule programs according to the daily time-table of the viewers. ‘Stripping’ means scheduling the same program at the same time each (week)day to make the schedule more predictable and to encourage habit formation.

[3] In Germany – Europe’s biggest music marke

Excerpt out of 19 pages


What happens to the 'M' in MTV? A look at the changes in MTV's programming
Ohio University  (School of Telecommunication)
Broadcast & Cable Programming
1- (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
485 KB
Historical Overview, How much music does MTV need?, New MTV Services, M2, The Suite
Quote paper
Christoph Koch (Author), 1998, What happens to the 'M' in MTV? A look at the changes in MTV's programming, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/3945


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