A decade of MTV Music video channel keeps tempo as audience grows

July 15, 1991|By Vicente Rodriguez | Vicente Rodriguez,Dallas Morning News

"You'll never look at music the same way again."

-- MTV slogan from 1981

A RELAXED KURT LODER stands at a lectern during the shooting of an MTV news segment at the music video network's midtown Manhattan studios. Despite technical problems that have stretched the taping of a 15-minute segment to nearly two hours, the unflappable MTV news anchor calmly sips apple juice between occasional puffs from a cigarette.

The segment finally completed, Loder quietly departs. Minutes later, the raucous "Yo! MTV Raps" posse enters the studio. The flamboyant Doctor Dre and company have come to tape their show, a lively, street-wise mix of videos and interviews. Today's guests are psychedelic rappers De La Soul.

As MTV nears its 10th anniversary in August, Loder and "Yo! MTV Raps" represent how much the often-criticized network has changed and grown since it premiered in 1981.

At its inception, MTV was nothing more than an around-the-clock, seven-day-a-week dose of rock videos. The "news" mostly consisted of video jockeys dispensing tidbits on concert tours. But the presence of Loder, a respected journalist and former senior editor at Rolling Stone, has added needed credibility to the network. And on a music channel that once shunned all non-pop-rock musical styles, "Yo! MTV Raps" has become one of MTV's most popular shows since it first aired three years ago.

MTV in 1991 includes programs not only on rap, but also dance and heavy metal, two genres that were excluded at the outset. There's also a movie magazine show, a daily and weekly news roundup, a comedy show and a live call-in segment that allows fans to chat with guests from the music world.

"We've changed quite a bit over the years," observes Doug Herzog, an MTV senior vice president who's in charge of programming. "That was the original premise of MTV, that we're never going to stand still for too long.

"If MTV ever stops doing that, that will probably be the end. But we haven't yet, and there's no reason to suspect we will. Clearly MTV and videos are here to stay."

Herzog's assessment is shared by others inside and outside the music world who say MTV has become one of the industry's most powerful entities.

"When we read our distribution reports, they show that once a video gets on MTV, it sells throughout the entire country," says Pam Marcello, product manager at MCA Records. "So MTV certainly has power.

"They have a lot of youth appeal, they have incredible brand identity, they know their music, they know their market. They keep reinventing themselves to keep fresh and to keep kids coming in. I really think MTV does a great job."

And though the network was not even available in its home base of New York City when it started, affiliates today carry MTV into more than 40 countries.

"MTV has become so important that the word 'MTV' has a cultural meaning now," says Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "It talks about a certain way of looking at the world; it's an aesthetic."

The network's most important contribution, music industry officials say, is that MTV rejuvenated an ailing record industry. By 1981, record sales had dropped more than a third from the high reached in 1978. Just six albums had ever sold more than 7 million copies each at that point. But sales were up by 1983 and have continued to climb steadily since then, aided by the popularity of compact discs. And the number of albums that have sold at least 7 million copies has nearly tripled in 10 years.

The first video played on MTV was the ironically titled "Video Killed The Radio Star" by The Buggles. It was among the 400 videos the MTV library contained in 1981. Today the various record labels submit half that number every month.

"When we went on the air, two of the Billboard Top 100 singles had videos," says MTV creative director Judy McGrath, who helps oversee the network's daily operations. "Now 99 percent have videos."

MTV's growth was accelerated in 1983 by Michael Jackson's phenomenal success with the album "Thriller." MTV constantly played the videos for "Billie Jean" and "Beat It," which helped turn "Thriller" into the best-selling album in history. While Jackson's success partially opened the door for some black performers to appear on MTV, that door did not swing wide open until "Yo! MTV Raps" began broadcasting in 1988.

Initially, "Billie Jean's" most important contribution was to expand music video into a stylish art form that went beyond performers simply lip-syncing their songs amid drab, often unimaginative surroundings. Now viewed as a viable art form, videos have evolved to the point that well-known film directors -- including Jon Landis, Martin Scorsese and, most recently, Spike Lee -- routinely work in the format.

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