After 10 years, MTV reaps rewards of the cutting edge

July 28, 1991|By J. D. ConsidineJ. D. Considine | J. D. ConsidineJ. D. Considine,Sun Popular Music Critic

It was just after midnight on the morning of Aug. 1, 1981, when an anonymous voice announced to an unknown number of cable viewers, "Ladies and gentlemen -- rock and roll." And with that, MTV introduced itself to America.

Not all of America, of course. In fact, MTV's penetration was so spotty that even its corporate offices in Manhattan were unable to tune in until late the next year. So MTV staffers found themselves hiking across the Hudson to Fort Lee, N.J., to watch their own premiere.

L But that hardly kept the fledgling outfit from thinking big.

Why, its very first video -- "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles -- seemed a warning to the rest of the rock establishment. As the chorus put it, "Video killed the radio star/Pictures came and took your heart."

It was a cocky beginning.

Yet as MTV nears the end of its first decade, the cable channel seems a bigger success than even its inventors dared dream. With some 7,430 affiliates, it reaches more than 56 million subscribers in the United States, an audience that has come to depend on MTV for everything from Madonna's latest look to Guns N' Roses' newest scandal.

Everyone, it seems, wants their MTV.

"Its impact has been incalculable," said Anthony DeCurtis, a senior editor at Rolling Stone.

Indeed, MTV has had a broader impact on American popular culture than anything since rock and roll itself. It changed the pace of television, the look of advertising, the feel of movies, and the mechanics of star-making -- not to mention the sound of popular music.

MTV's mixture of sound and vision has turned movies into multimedia marketing vehicles, with hit potential -- as films like "Top Gun" and "Pretty Woman" have proven -- in both theater and record store.

Its impact is reflected everywhere in television. When NBC's Brandon Tartikoff scribbled the phrase "MTV Cops" on a note pad, it sparked "Miami Vice" and a major shift in the networks' attitudes toward image, music and narrative.

Advertising agencies were also eager to appropriate this new visual vocabulary. "MTV represents the avant-garde of commercial practice," said Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It's probably had more of an influence on advertisement -- TV advertisement and even print advertisement -- than any recent development. The constant cutting, the relentless rock score, the brilliant colors, the bargain-basement dadaism -- all of that is what advertising has needed."

As movies, advertising and other television made inroads on MTV's turf, the channel broadened its own base by including non-rock shows in its lineup, ranging from "Remote Control," a TV-trivia game show, to the fashion-conscious "House of Style." Where once the veejays read "rock news" items between clips, now MTV has its own, daily "MTV News" programs. And not only are there movie-based videos, there's also "The Big Picture," MTV's own movie news show.

"MTV's value right now is in its coverage of rock culture, not rock music," said Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly television critic. "I'm thinking of things like Kurt Loder's reporting of the news, which has been very strong against rock and roll censorship."

MTV hasn't been without detractors, of course. It was barely on the air a minute before the complaints started coming in, and they haven't let up since. Moralists complained that there was too much sex and violence in the videos; rock purists argued that putting pictures to music only cheapens the value of a song.

What really gets critics carping, though, is MTV's glorification of the fast-paced, non-linear stream of images. Some call it "eye candy," and complain of its hypnotic effect on viewers. Bob DeMoss, a youth culture specialist at Focus on Family, a conservative Christian action group, argued that MTV's constantly changing picture doesn't allow a viewer to digest what he or she sees.

"What ends up happening is that it puts you in a mesmerized state," he said. "I've seen kids when MTV is turned on -- you could offer them a million dollars and they wouldn't hear you."

MTV's non-narrative approach may disorient older viewers, but children seem to understand it instinctively. Mr. DeCurtis remembered the first time he watched MTV with a young nephew. "I was in my 30s, and he was maybe 12. I would be watching these things and have no idea what was going on -- there's the girl in the garter, there's the breaking cup, there's rain on the window, there's a picture of the band performing -- whereas he was able to just roll along with that. He knew exactly where he was."

That pace, which Les Garland, a former vice president at MTV, described as "a whole hour of three-minute movies," is at the heart of MTV. But the channel claims it's also part of modern American life.

"We do reflect the current culture, and it moves fast," said Judy McGrath, MTV's creative director. "And it has for the last 10

years. We're really kind of a mirror of that."


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