MTV: Twenty Years Of Television With Music
by Sean Carolan
Oh, I was a young 'un, allright. Sometime on the day of August 1, 1981, the local cable company chose to stop using channel 3 to broadcast the camera that swept across their clock/barometer/thermometer assembly, and instead piped through the signal for a new satellite service that had started at midnight. The first host I saw on MTV was Mark Goodman, and with his genial demeanor and huge afro-like perm, I thought to myself, "It's nice that Robert Hegyes is getting work."
The cable system's satellite link was dodgy at best. The audio was distorted; the idea of stereo television was fairly novel, and they didn't have the little bit of electronics that was required to receive the audio clearly. Even when they did get that doohickey, getting MTV "all day, all night, in stereo" involved connecting your stereo FM radio's antenna to the cable system and tuning it to the MTV stereo feed, assuming you had a stereo FM radio available (not a given back then) whose speakers could be placed around the TV. It also assumed you had parents that didn't mind you draping stereo components around the TV set.
None of the technical hurdles mattered. One month before I was due to go to college, and with USA Network's late night music video block "Night Flight" already solidly established as a gateway drug, I was hooked. I filled several Beta tapes with my favorite videos, tapes which have long since lost their magnetism -- physically and metaphorically, I might add. I proudly engaged in a level of fannish geekdom that was years ahead of the sort of monomania that would be made possible by the Internet. (Heck, it was a full tweve days before IBM would eventually introduce the PC.)
Their playlist, for they had one back in those days, was eclectic by necessity; music videos were generally only shot as vanity projects for extremely successful artists, or as money holes for extremely unsuccessful artists. One act had a great video that was played constantly - problem was, you couldn't get their record, because the record company hadn't printed up very many, expecting to fulfill a contractual obligation by soaking up any profits the record made with an extremely expensive video. Whoops.
The five VJ's were there to string it all together, and they did so using whatever means they could improvise. It was easy for Mark Goodman and J. J. Jackson, whose commercial radio background prepared them to handle the pregnant pauses and outright technical failures that were bound to accompany the shoestring budget MTV subsisted on in its early days. Marthat Quinn was simply a natural, and Alan Hunter was too much of a wiseass to get caught up short on the air. Nina Blackwood had the hardest time, from my seventeen-year-old point of view, in that she'd often begin talking without having any idea what she was actually trying to say. This isn't criticism, folks; this is empathy - I found myself rooting for her.
When I met Martha Quinn in 1982, sitting with Alan Hunter and Nina Blackwood a few rows ahead of me in the mezzanine at a Police concert at the Meadowlands Arena, she confessed they still couldn't actually watch the channel at home - there wasn't any cable TV in New York City yet. (And, let's review: they were sitting in the mezzanine at a concert featuring one of their core artists. Not exactly where one finds household names, but back then, the VJ's were household names only in the few households that could see them.)
Time passed. MTV, along with Nickelodeon, was part of a teensy venture called Warner/AMEX Satellite Entertainment Corporation, seeded financially by Warner Communications and American Express (!). That split off and changed its name to MTV Networks, then got sucked up by Viacom and became a guiding force for that conglomerate's direction by the time they got big enough to assimilate CBS.
With the change in ownership came a change in direction, roughly analogous to the changes that crept through the radio industry over the same period. It's no longer good enough for a media outlet to make money doing what it originally set out to do. It has to simply make as much money as possible, even if that requires abandoning the reasons it existed in the first place.
And so we have MTV in its twentieth year: sure, it's on all day and all night, in stereo. But the music you hear is in the background. MTV has as much to do with music now as NBC has to do with J. Fred Muggs. An endless rotation of songs simply won't drive profits that make shareholders happy, even if they keep monomaniacal geeks like me in hog heaven. (Memo to my cable company: MTV2 would be nice...)
But out of the sense of history that often has NBC pulling out clips of J. Fred Muggs when the Today Show hits another anniversary, MTV's 20th anniversary bash featured the reappearance of the original five VJs. To their credit, none of them asked for their old jobs back, which is good, since those jobs no longer really exist. (To her own credit, Martha Quinn proved once and for all that she's past puberty by proudly displaying her pregnant tummy.)
But when it came to her turn to speak, God love her, Nina Blackwood (dressed strangely in black as the anti-Stevie Nicks) opened her mouth without having any idea what she was trying to say. And a great peace settled over me.
©2001 Sean Carolan