Seminar Final Paper

sem final research paper copy 2 (pages copy, includes footnotes and accurate sourcing)

Taylor Marie Hoekstra
Visual Culture Seminar
April 29, 2016

MTV: Made To Venenate

“I WANT MY MTV!” Is still a proclamation to the television industry after the rabbit-chasing of trends and evolving demographics that have changed Music Television from its rock and roll genesis, to its current constant struggle of superiority vs inferiority through reality television. Regardless, MTV heavily influenced a new lifestyle and attitude to the younger generations and further continues to do so. Yet, the classic 1980s MTV rebellion of pre-existing notions has slowly faded, losing their original identity. Commercialization has always been at large, but since MTV has allowed the monster to control its station, it has officially been replaced by it’s tenacity, falling flat for innovation of both music and television.
The blooming MTV: Music Television rose in “August 1981, as a twenty-four-hour cable program service presenting an endless stream of music videos, short visual productions featuring current pop and rock songs.” It was created in 1979 by John A. Lack from Warner-Amex who structured the idea of targeting demographics after he created the juvenile channel of Nickelodeon, by focusing towards a “narrow demographic… of teenagers and young adults,” of ages 12-35.  In 1985, Viacom bought Warner-Amex, and currently holds MTV, Nickelodeon, VH-1 and other stations. He birthed MTV after combining his love for rock and roll music, with the pairing of new idols and new look at television programming.

Literally, the Video Killed the Radio Star due to MTV. Uniquely, MTV segregated itself from other cable programs not solely because of it being a channel serving music à la carte, but because of its unique format. “MTV was television without programs. MTV was initially, structured less like television and more like radio.” Like a radio, the viewer could peacefully “watch” the station without being present in the room, not typical to the normalcy of being glued onto a sofa to watch every crucial detail. New onto the scene, this type of format differed from children’s cartoons or adult news, by making it unique specifically for the teenage demographic during their transitional phases. This helped with both competition from other longer-lasting shows, and with personal ratings. However, like natural selection of talent, this challenged artists to be both singers and performers with a individualistic look, thus creating both new TV and new fame.

To maintain their early parallelism of the paradox, “hedonism and capitalism, freedom and bondage” that rock music identified with, MTV regulated the upcoming artists and their corresponding videos of the appropriateness for both viewer and television standards. Television served as the capitalist institution that offered them (MTV) to stand as a platform to criticize mainstream American culture while still participating and feeding off of consumer appropriation. To cleverly mask their own participation of abiding to societal norms, they conservatively rejected video clips with “excessive sexual content, excessive violence, setting dangerous examples, racist content, and product mention.” Even Madonna’s Vogue was threatened not to be aired by MTV because her breasts were visible under her sheer black laced blouse in parts of the video. Looking back, much scoffing is produced by today’s music lovers because of their censorship. Yet, MTV’s taste has slipped away, and the videos once blocked are now easily accessible due to the changed societal morals of what’s suitable. Granted, MTV may flash a warning pre-airing of the video, most explicit videos are still accessible on their website. Thus, lowering their original standards, stripping away an identity or respect of themselves.

While still collaging their identity in the beginning, their profit was microscopic. “The sum total losses from 1981 through 1983 added up to $33.9 million.” This snowballed quickly because, “Each clip cost MTV approximately $1,000 to clean up…. and there was a .14 cent air play licensing royalty (per video) to be paid ASCAP or BMI.” This was an inequality that MTV brought onto themselves, in return for their collateral of 24 hours of music with no programs and little amount of commercials.* Highlighting what format not to follow financially, MTV had scraped it’s knee pretty badly, and had to heal quickly to survive. “The labels waived the licensing fees during MTV’s early years… claiming they wanted MTV to succeed because of its proven promotional power, but vowed that when MTV became a profitable enterprise they expected to be compensated. When MTV first reported profits in 1984, the record companies
* Remains unconfirmed due to sources being untraceable. It is believed that there was “original promos and commercials from Mountain Dew, Atari, Chewels gum, and Jovan,” at least on the first day, according to Wikipedia/Yahoo.   were anxious for MTV to start paying license fees and began negotiations…” The solution to their financial dilemma and capability to pay the labels, was from the sharks themselves. The advertisers.
To help promote the MTV station with ratings, sponsors eased into the glorious 24 hour programming hub with glorified contests such as MTV Town by Nabisco, or MTV “House Party” by Pepsi that their MTV VJ’s hosted. These contests attracted viewers and advertisers for the craze of fame, so advertisers became more saturated on the scene. In typical suit of MTV, traditionalism meant conformity. Keeping the demographic in mind, unawareness of this transition from the young generation, was used without moderation on their part. Music videos may have originally been created to promote the artist alone, but that media platform for marketers was too promising of an opportunity to pass up. “On MTV the ‘blurring’ of content between program and advertising is complete…everything shown on MTV is a commercial. From an intertextual, inter-subjective perspective, it is often impossible to distinguish the style of an advertisement from a video: Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, Madonna, and other have produced commercials that seem to be interchangeable with their videos; many ads simply look like music videos.” Even their MTV promotions were stacked with celebrities, merging music with promotion, connected with advertising. This brought advertisers to the elevation and advantage like vultures waiting for prey, that the teenagers and young adults hypnotically accepted. Therefore, MTV has not only created, but encouraged the strategy of blending programs with commercials and has carried on to other channels like a parasite.

Understandably since the beginning, MTV’s goal was to make money in the television industry. But even the videos alone have the promotional persuasion, disregarding their original standards of sans-promotion and disowning the regular television programs “punctuated by commercials.” A professor at the University of Hartford, Dr. Jack Banks said, “Music video is at its core a type of advertisement for cultural products: films, film soundtracks, recorded music, live concerts, fashion apparel depicted in the clip and even the music clip itself as a home video retail product.” The videos aren’t about visual music, it’s actually selling a lifestyle, attitude, and the qualities associated with that performer. That, then will circulate the music industry (more than television in proportion), to participate and purchase the products associated with the video, while watching for the upcoming trend. For instance, Madonna’s debut music video, Burning Up may not have what actually launched her career, but it is considered one of her greatest hits because it sold a revolutionary image. “So ’80s, and so Madonna–the rubber bracelets, the chains, the bleach blonde hair with the terrible roots” was popularized so quickly by worshiping teenage girls, that now a typical 80s look is reflected from her. And obviously besides having a sellable image, her myriad of videos boosted her career of soundtracks, and concerts. Yet it’s her attitude of rebellion, gender bending, and sexuality that pushed the expectations of pop music further. Therefore, the music video was essentially an advertisement of a new era and standards to live by, stretching both MTV and teenage culture.
This elaboration of marketing beyond the star’s soundtrack furthered when MTV’s programming and videos advertised specifically on smaller details like a pop can to larger ones like the wardrobe of the celebrity. A laughable example would be Autograph’s Turn Up The Radio music video, where they plugged a Papermate retractable pencil so largely, it could’ve been thought as an advertisement for only Papermate. Yet, these type of advertisers continually exploited their powers through MTV, which explains how their channel has become a commercialized beast. “MTV’s promotions are an integral part of its design and its mood,” Dr. Banks wrote. “This mood can now be considered as, in part, an everlasting state of unfulfillment.” Unfathomably, naiveness was and is ritually utilized on the younger demographic. True, this is the age range where peer pressure, materialism and incapability to constrain is as humanly high, but that doesn’t make it ethically correct. Basically, these kids served as the golden age range for commercialism, the advertisers played coy with their presentation, but schemingly knew how to score with profits.

Frankie may have said to Relax, but today’s MTV should make everyone far from relaxed. “Music video has been called a pioneer of video expression.”  Love, anger, jealousy, sadness, temptation, and happiness, are all the foundational emotions that compile these videos. Overtime, MTV and the video producers lowered their standards to proceed with over-crossing the line of societal expectations mixed with commercialization to financially back their creations. Understandably, music videos stir pop culture to push a new level of shock value. Now, it has gotten to the point that explicitness and vulgarity have saturated the norm. Even Miley Cyrus’ twerking with Robin Thicke on MTV has lost it’s shock value today because of her most recent appearance on the VMAs with little clothes, explicit language, and sexual actions. This translates that by MTV dismissing their regulation (no promotion, sexual rating content, no violence, etc.), they chip away their standards to constantly please the anticipated demand. They chose to compromise their taste to respect their viewers. It’s a give and pull relationship. So now society rapidly escalates for more boldness, then remains hungry for an unhealthy and greedy lifestyle portrayed by celebrities and reality television. Hypocritically with a loss of taste, MTV once played an ad with rockers discouraging the usage of drugs in the 80s, but today highlights videos that pertain to only drugs. It’s hard to relax knowing that our standards of “expression” today means explicit content with a pile of promotion, which dilutes these standards to then escalate further.
Even if MTV went back cold turkey to their original format of 24 hour music, they’d fall flat. Competitors such as YouTube have all mastered the kinks MTV faced, and has still triumphed (for now). They have incorporated advertisements/partnerships, live videos, video recommendations and repetition of videos. But this is where MTV has the opportunity to revive the television with music, by innovating from these music platforms. Instead, MTV has tapped out of the boxing ring and focused on reality shows (a bigger fad from around 2008-2013). By 1990, “MTV increased its production of new shows with little or no video music, spending about $60 million on new programming.” Their award shows are now centered around the dramatics instead of the musical talent showcased, and even their actual website only has a small tab with music information, minuscule compared to the amount of reality drama they broadcast on the rest of their site. The reasoning? MTV is metaphorically stuck in a multitude of ways. Since 2014 to 2015 their ratings “dropped 29%.” They are losing competition to mobile devices and apps like YouTube, Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes. Yes, this may be to blame why MTV dropped music entirely, however this isn’t the case. Since MTV was always ahead of the curve (in format, types of musicians shown, creating their own promotion, creating new events, and having teen award shows), they have fallen behind in the race of innovation and creativity. Now, they desperately struggle participating in the social media realm, a missed opportunity, and settled for a reality-viewing app and a discover feature on Snapchat.
In addition, MTV is confused by the incoming generation post-Millennials which they recently declared as “Founders,” a.k.a. half their demographic already since the demographic is now approximately 13-22 instead of the once 13-35. This sense of misdirection and ambiguity has not only caused the music to flake away, but also a blurred path where to lead this new generation in media. According to Nathaniel Brown, senior vice president of communications for MTV, “MTV as a brand doesn’t age with our viewers.” Therefore, MTV continues to abuse the teenage, hormonal emotions of superiority vs. inferiority with the contrasting exposure of disappointedly true reality shows against elevated product placement to assist in status, resulting in emotional displacement. This type of emotional manipulation wasn’t originally a theory in the creation of MTV since they only exposed talent that embraced a relatable, emotional experience (like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper) to their audience. Not alienate.

Currently, MTV is still dragging their unhealthy, unmotivational, and unappealing programs, with nonexistent music and bottomless appetite for commercialization onto their third decade. Dr. Jack Banks also stated that, “We refer to most TV as ‘commercial,’ but only MTV can lay claim to that title because that is precisely what it is: ersatz commercials punctuated by ‘real ones.’” Their expired strategy of “blurring” is nonexistent because the amount of product placement has dominated their actual programming. But since our generation has been raised with its accumulation simultaneously, there’s still a lack of acknowledgment that the advertisers are doing it. At this point the advertisers have won control over everything. Somehow, MTV still remains to have some credibility in their intended demographic, but lacks impact. More channels are following MTV’s specific demographic like ABC Family rebranding into Freeform. Yet MTV is still more commercialized because they haven’t rebranded, and are now too separated from their name and their once identity of nonstop rock and roll music.
Unfortunately, the innovative 1980s MTV of new format, stardom and culture is far from sight because of the decline of music videos, increase of reality television, decline of taste, and increase of manipulating their demographic for a profit. By the end of the rollercoaster ride of hills and drops, you realize that the ride is over and it’s time to find something more exciting. Unless MTV figures out how to become that new ride so the incoming youth can appreciate the quality of television and music without material propaganda, MTV will be that ride that’s shut down. Until they lose the commercialization and recenter, we current and past viewers will continue to yearn and scream “I WANT MY MTV!”


Anson, Robert Sam. “When Music Was Still on MTV: The Birth of an Iconic Channel.” Vanity Fair. Conde Nast, 4 Jan. 2008. Web. 13 Apr. 2016.

Banks, Jack. Monopoly Television: MTV’s Quest to Control the Music. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1996. Print.

Denisoff, R. Serge. Inside MTV. New Brunswick, NJ, USA: Transaction, 1988. Print.

Diaz, Eric. “The 13 Greatest Madonna Music Videos Of All Time | Nerdist.” Nerdist. N.p., 08 Feb. 2015. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Goessl, Leigh. “Will MTV Blow Off Its 35th Birthday?” InfoBarrel. N.p., 14 Jan. 2016. Web. 25 Apr. 2016.

Sooney, Pia. “MTV’s Origins in the 80s.” Like Totally 80s. N.p., 21 Aug. 2010. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

Williams, Kevin. Why I (still) Want My MTV: Music Video and Aesthetic Communication. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 2003. Print.

Zara, Christopher. “MTV Ratings Decline Raises Relevance Questions As Young People Cut Cable Cord For Devices.” International Business Times. N.p., 14 Apr. 2015. Web.

1 Comment

  1. Mike Rooney · February 12, 2024 Reply

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