Everyone remembers Michael Jacksons red leather jacket covered with zippers and the sexy style of Madonna. MTV, or music television, nationally publicizes these images and entertainers, and others like them. The station also promotes an idealized teen lifestyle, reflecting the images of these famous artists, that contrasts with the realities of the Generation X lifestyle. While some view the station as “illustrated radio” or an entertainment network for viewers’ pleasure, others more accurately assess it as an advertising enterprise that endorses products and promotes attitudes.
The advertisements that are both hidden in videos and placed in regular slots, influence viewers. Whether or not MTV critics agree with these “messages” that, the network sends out, it has become a huge franchise generating large profits and great popularity. During the 1980’s, MTV grew from being strictly a music video station to an original, three-station network that became the choice of several generations of viewers and the advertisers who court them. MTV’s music, commercialism, and issues of morality continue to influence many types of viewers. In 1981, MTV changed the style of music forever.
It changed the way people listen to music. They do not only listen with their ears anymore; they listen with their eyes too. MTV became one of the first stations to be able to appeal to such a populous audience as the twelve to twenty-four year old age groups. The chief operating officer of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC) felt that there was “a body of young people being ignored,” hence the company designed MTV (Denisoff 37). Although at first success was unpredictable, the MTV network fought off competition by such competitors as the powerful Turner Broadcasting System (Daspin 20).
There isn’t room for two or three services doing the same thing,” commented MTV’s Bob Pittman (Hedegaard 38). Later, the MTV network came out with VH1, or Video Hits One, a music station for older viewers, and Nickelodeon, children’s service station (Daspin 19). These two stations and the original MTV station gave the network a station for an audience of just about any age, satisfying many advertisement agencies. Once the advertisement industry noticed the MTV network’s popularity, it became a very desirable sales medium.
Advertising agent Kevin Burns explains that “if you’re a national advertiser and you buy teens, you’re going to buy MTV” (“Viacom” 11). MTV appealed to its viewers by constantly televising popular singers and other role models. A music video endorses many nonmaterial items, as well as material items. Regular inter-program commercials usually promote brands of physical items. However, in music videos with popular singers, messages and images are promoted to the viewer. Videos increase an entertainer’s popularity, thus promoting his/her record, producer, type of music, style of dance, and physical image.
This popularity increases profit for many industries. The artist’s record sales boom, benefiting the record company, the record stores, and any other person involved in the process of production. “MTV was dealing with the [record] labels, not the artists,” states R. Serge Denisoff (154). In addition, clothing companies benefit when the singer wears their brand. Creative director Judy McGrath feels that MTV videos are “almost a subliminal fashion show,” meaning that clothing brands and styles are introduced and publicized through music videos (Denisoff 258).
Lastly, fine arts companies, specifically dance and music, increase in popularity as people wish to imitate the musicians. A perfect example of this advertising scenario is Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video. Soon children across America were wearing replicas of the clothes and “moon-walking” down the schools’ hallways. In this scenario, Michael Jackson, pop music, red leather jackets, dancing, and Motown Records all became popular. With so many brands and agencies wanting to place their ads on MTV, the network itself needed to advertise its own information and existence in some way to increase its own profit.
The network began to air animated segments after commercial breaks that endorsed the MTV logo. MTV expanded to Holland, Germany, South America, and many other European countries. It is possible that MTV has become a means of exporting American values to and creating a national teen subculture in other nations. The MTV European network offers programs similar to the United States’ version (Dupler, “New MTV Prez” 55). In Taiwan, people frequently pirated MTV videos to show in the popular parlors or showing booths (Smith 63). This influence in other nations was important for economic expansion and the promotion of styles.
One might ask, “How can this entertainment empire be so perfect? ” The answer is that it is not. Although MTV has many fans, almost as many people criticize the network. According to John Hamerlinck, a freelance writer for The Humanist, religious moralists feel that “MTV’s combination of television and rock ‘n’ roll is both potent and frightening” (43). Many people feel that some videos display immoral sexual content. There were also rumors that MTV segregated videos and that the station initially refused to play Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” video (Allen 83).
John Hamerlinck disagrees that MTV has broken any morality code. He says that MTV is a business that represents the values of a corporate world, not a philosophy or an alternative to religion (43). The network’s reply to the allegations of racism was that they gear their videos towards a rock and roll audience (Denisoff 66). Letters written to cable companies often said that MTV was a waste of money and that it was “suggestive and offensive for young children” (Denisoff 177). Many people including artists themselves also feel that videos make image more important than music itself.
Hit artist Joe Jackson commented in a Billboard magazine interview, Things which used to count, such as being a good composer, player or singer, are getting lost in the desperate rush to visualize everything. It’s now possible to be all of the above and still get nowhere simply by not looking good in a video or, worse still, not making one (Denisoff 263). In order to defeat this anti-MTV campaign, some citizens have tried to ban MTV from their homes, while MTV has made a few additions to its normal program.
Dimension Cable Service in Texarkana, Texas offers a channel trap to block the MTV signal (Newman, “MTV Taking” 92). MTV’s effort to fight back against the anti-MTV activists has included many public service announcements about racism, sexism, and homophobia (Hamerlinck 43). One of their most famous PSAs, entitled “Rock The Vote,” encourages young adults to register to vote and to utilize their voting privileges. When a “Just Say No” slogan flashes across the television screen in between a seductive Madonna video and a “gangsta” rap video reenacting a drug transaction, the public feels a relief of tension.
The extent of MTV’s morality or immorality must be judged by each individual. In 1981, no one expected MTV to be such a powerful franchise fourteen years later. It developed a new style of entertainment that competitors can only wish to copy. Advertisers were more than happy with the network’s stations that satisfied so many viewers and had distinct personalities. Music videos changed the image of music. As Essence columnist Bonnie Allen says, “MTV made us look at the sound of music” (83).