Appealing to this younger generation, MTV was akin to an early social network. It created a new relationship between popular music and the mass media, changing the very format of television making. But the new TV channel was also conditioned by the politics of broadcasting. Unlike clubs and other urban phenomena, MTV reached out to suburban and small-town areas. It was available in parts of the USA where the cost per mile of digging and installing cable was much lower than in city centres, and thus had the immediate effect of introducing American urban culture to an entirely new younger generation.7 American teenagers could suddenly take part in a whole tranche of cultural activity from the family living room, or, via the second television set, from their own rooms. This domestication of youth entertainment ushered in a wider cultural shift of focus, from public and collective spaces to the private space of the household.
Launched little more than a year after Ted Turner’s 24-hour news-based pay television channel Cable News Network (CNN), MTV participated, through the screen, in a new type of spatial and temporal construction. Both networks were early embodiments of 24/7, which art historian and media theorist Jonathan Crary has termed Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, marketing a global infrastructure for continuous work and consumption in which any persisting notions of sleep as somehow natural are rendered unacceptable. Selling the illusion of a social world, MTV and CNN created, according to Crary, “a non-social model of mechanic performance and a suspension of living that does not disclose the human cost required to sustain its effectiveness.”8
These forms of uninterrupted infrastructure pioneered by MTV and CNN marked the end of programming and the synchronisation of continuous flows of content, paving the way for narrowcasting, in itself a technological form of postmodern fragmentation. It was no longer a case of a few channels shared by the entire family, but of a multitude of content to choose from – all populated by highly diversified forms of advertisement that were much more targeted towards specific demographic or social groups within the population.
MTV not only contributed to record sales and advertising; it also ushered in the multiplication of television screens –– in kids' bedrooms, the basement, and other colonised domestic spaces. In the immediate post-war period, television, by bringing the outside world inside, and by compressing time and distance, had turned homes into theatres, ideologically akin to the construction of a new American and European suburbia. As explained by author Lynn Spigel, in that period television was, “typically welcomed as a catalyst for renewed domestic values”,9 restoring faith in familial togetherness and in the splendours of consumer capitalism. But together with the multiplication of television sets, a new media environment, conceptually explored in Italian artist Ugo La Pietra’s 1983 project for La Casa Telematica (The Telematic House),10 MTV modified the traditional viewing apparatus of the American household: from a unique focal point, located in the centre of the living room, to a multiplication of centres distributed around the house.
In another of his germinal books, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture, Jonathan Crary writes: “If vision can be said to have any enduring characteristics within the 20th century, it is that it has no enduring features. Rather it is embedded in a pattern of adaptability to new technological relations, social configurations, and economic imperatives.”11 In the early 1980s, with the diversification of television channels, and the advent of cable television in the USA especially, vision, via the apparatus of the screen, became specific: demographically and socially oriented, it transformed the home into a media space of entertainment, education, and, most importantly, targeted consumption. MTV and its related format of the music video were important components of this late 20th-century media environment. They emerged at a precise moment in time and through the convergence of three different factors: technological, social and economic. And while they became, for a time, central to the music industry, they also shaped the space around us: both on the macro scale – the relation between centres and periphery for example – and the micro scale of the home. Now outdated, MTV and music videos have been replaced by other fleeting vision regimes, whose impact on domesticity and territoriality has yet to be fully measured.