I’m a former MTV and VH1 employee: I spent six years of my career at the two channels, combined. When this comes up in conversation, people of a certain age (well, people who are *my* age, and maybe 10 or 15 years younger and older) always yell at me: “Why don’t they play music videos anymore? I hate reality shows!”
My first answer is simply, “I wasn’t in charge of programming!” This doesn’t always work. In fact, when I interviewed Tom Petty for VH1, he tried to take me to task for this (and he didn’t accept my reasoning, unfortunately.)
The truth is, I did love “my MTV.” I didn’t have MTV 40 years ago when it first launched (on August 1, 1981), but soon after that, it was on our TV anytime I had the cable box (which was connected to the TV with a wire, there were no real remote controls back then). MTV turned me on to artists that weren’t getting exposure anywhere else (or they played them before they got exposure anywhere else): Prince, Madonna, Duran Duran, the Eurythmics, the Stray Cats, to name a few. The channel brought a lot of oddballs to the suburbs via music videos: Bow Wow Wow (“I Want Candy”), Dexy’s Midnight Runners (“Come On Eileen”), A Flock Of Seagulls (“I Ran”), Animotion (“Obsession”), Big Country (“In A Big Country”) and many more. Years later, they started offering specialized shows, which I also loved: Headbanger’s Ball, Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes.
The truth is, while MTV helped record labels sell music (and they definitely put some bands on the map that we wouldn’t have otherwise heard of), the 24-hour video jukebox business model didn’t really work. TV sells ads based on half-hour or hour-long shows. When you’re playing 3 to 5-minute music videos, it stands to reason that some people are going to change the channel if they don’t like the next song. And when the programming is so diverse — as it was in the early, free-for-all days — advertisers aren’t really sure who they’re speaking to. All of these factors were issues even before the launch of YouTube, where people can find nearly any video that they want to see (even if an artist or label doesn’t post, or takes down, one of their videos, a fan will usually upload a version of it).
This rather harsh video from nearly a decade ago (!) does a decent job of explaining the issue. Note that while there are a lot of “bleeps” in the video, it still is NSFW.
The one incorrect point here comes at 2:22 when the faux-executive says that people would be complaining that MTV doesn’t play Pavement. No one would complain about that. However, he is correct that the complaint “Why doesn’t MTV play videos anymore?” is old enough to drive a car.
But turning on MTV and expecting it to resemble what your experience with the channel was is as crazy as showing up to your old high school and expecting classes to be just like the ones that you took. It’s as crazy as expecting the students there to remember the legends of your high school exploits. Sure, you had great times in high school, but that was decades ago. The only way any students know who you are is if your kids go there.
Of course, that’s why there are high school reunions: for you to see your pals from back in the day. And if you want to see your favorite MTV era videos, they’re always going to be there on YouTube.