Just read a fascinating Washington Monthly article about the rise of MTV in the 80s to where it is today. The general thrust is that MTV started as a way for young people to experience the grown-up world and long for a future of urban coolness. The network (and perhaps our culture) has become increasingly younger-focused, to the point where the network is now representing the college crowd, and the message has gone from worrying about a rooted future to enjoying a life of fleeting fantasy. The author uses The Real World as his main object lesson, but also looks at MTV as a whole.
Here is the MTV of the early 90s:
The music also had political dimensions, from the militant black empowerment rap group, Public Enemy to didactic liberals like Pearl Jam and R.E.M. to the feminist strummers of the Lilith Fair. Although you sometimes got the sense that MTV had gotten itself into a public position it didn’t really know what to do with â€“ such as when a flirty blonde asked candidate Clinton whether he preferred boxers or briefs â€“ there was also something charming about the network’s earnest agenda. For all the tiresome chatter about Generation X’s ironic, disengaged, navel-fixated brooding, it was nice to see MTV plunging its teenaged viewers into the real world, complete with ideas, politics, and consequences.
And here is where MTV started moving:
By the late 1990s, all of MTV’s programming was getting less aspirational. In a 1999 article in The New York Times Magazine, Marshall Sella was moved to write: “All in all, MTV seems to envision daily life as an endless game of pool in which people antagonize each other, then storm off to points unknown.” But the same focus on teenage dramas and concerns that critics deplored has, in fact, brought more young viewers to the network.
And here is where MTV is today:
The network added a host of new reality programs. “Sorority Life” and “Fraternity Life” detail the weepy, vomit-soaked ins and outs of college life. “True Life” shows hour-long documentaries about typical teenage problems: a girl who’s too fat to make the cheerleading squad, a workout-obsessed boy trying desperately to beef up. “Spring Break: Undercover” tracks hyper-fit college students as they get drunk and contrive to hook up in party locales like Cancun. “Jackass” is a series of gross-out skater-punk tricks and stunts, the sort of stuff that bored suburban teens might pull in their spare time. Now the network’s programming effectively mimics the lives and experiences of its viewers. The shift in programming has helped MTV’s ratings climb for five consecutive years, and more people now watch the network than ever before.
What has MTV done here? It started off as a network on the cutting edge, a network that typefied the dreams and aspirations of a generation. But at the same time, how many people really were going to go live in New York and become famous musicians, like some characters on The Real World attempted to do? MTV was giving a picture of possible futures, of people looking beyond the now towards an unpredictable time years away. And in America, at least, that is not what gets you ratings. That is not what people want to do. People here are much more interested in short-term satisfaction, at least people in their teens. The MTV shift to younger programming, to shows that are more similar to the experiences that teenagers are going through as they watch, or that they wish they were going through, at least, is always going to get you more viewership. In a world as big and confusing as ours, where people who take risks are a very small minority, it makes sense that for MTV to become mainstream cool and not just edge cool, it has to lose a lot of it’s hope in order to connect with it’s target audience. Instead of lifting people into the future, MTV has decided to embrace the now.