MTV: Domesticity, Family and the End of Programming
Video Essay
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by Léa-Catherine Szacka

At the start of the 1980s, American pay television channel MTV began showing around-the-clock music videos to an avid young audience. Generating a non-stop sequence of clips targeting those aged 12 to 34, MTV infiltrated the domestic space, disrupting programming and the traditional family routine. An essay by Léa-Catherine Szacka.

On 1 August 1981, MTV’s very first transmission opened with the famous words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!” over footage of the 1969 moon landing. Combining rock music with holy images – of what was still seen as the most famous moment in television history, as well as humanity's most technologically advanced achievement – the MTV theme turned into the emblem of an entire generation. The network, initially called Music Television and focusing primarily on rock music, had been launched by two of America’s largest conglomerates. In 1979, American Express had bought half of Warner Cable Corporation, with the intention of selling financial services in the home.1Together, they formed Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC), which created and developed several successful cable networks.2

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If the idea of showing music videos around the clock initially seemed like an asinine idea to most specialists and business people, MTV’s visionary minds, including co-founder Robert W. Pittman, working from a couple of rooms in the Sheraton Hotel in midtown Manhattan, succeeded in creating a need that did not previously exist. First available in rural and suburban areas of the USA, and slowly spreading to finally reach Europe in 1987, MTV soon became a powerful cultural force that forever changed the global TV landscape: reshaping music culture, visual culture, and, most importantly, youth culture.

Interactivity

A few years before the creation of MTV, Warner Cable, a division of Warner Communications, had come up with QUBE, the first two-way interactive cable television system and an early form of narrowcasting. From 1977 onwards, QUBE computer terminals were being test-marketed as part of a highly sophisticated cable communication system in Columbus, Ohio. QUBE offered a plethora of specialized channels, one of which was Sight on Sound, a music channel for concert footage and music-oriented programmes. Following a participatory programming logic, Warner Cable had commercialised a two-way multi-programmed cable television interactive system that allowed spectators to “answer back to [their] television”. Offering a new type of interaction with technology, QUBE was branded as “the TV of the people, by the people and for the people.”

QUBE marked the beginning of the era of participatory, as opposed to passive, television. As explained in a 1978 special report on QUBE, the system had the potential to revolutionize the entertainment, audio-visual instruction and education industries, among others.3 By greatly expanding the programming choice, and by allowing the viewer to become an active participant, QUBE effected a radical shift and an advance over what television or cable television had offered up to now, including the potential to open up American cities to cable television services on a profitable basis. The same report predicted that “QUBE could be the first market skirmish in programming, marketing and technological revolution that could profoundly affect the economy, the gross national product, the entertainment habits and the lifestyles of America.”4 And, indeed, it was the commercial potential of QUBE-like systems that would have an enormous impact on the music recording and publishing industries.

Format

The rationale for creating a television channel solely dedicated to music was based on a convergence of three separate yet interrelated factors. Firstly, in 1979 there was a huge contraction in record industry profits. The profits of British record label EMI, for example, sank to a mere one-thirtieth of what they had been in 1972. New music and new artists were failing to get radio exposure. Secondly, advertisers realised that they were not reaching a young demographic with television. Thirdly, in the early 1980s there was a general increase in the quantity of television production due to the invention of cable TV. In the USA particularly, there was a significant surge in the number of programming hours needed to fill the schedule. The cable market was suddenly in search of new and original content to fill programming hours, and MTV appeared as the easiest and cheapest solution. Using promotional video clips as its main input, MTV was thus able to shape an entirely new form of cultural production that came to dominate the music industry for most of the 1980s and 1990s. 

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Music video, a perfect alliance between music and pictures, did indeed kill the radio star.5 Although music videos existed way before the arrival of MTV, the new cable network created an industry for them by realising that the target audience for the channel, “young people who had money and the inclination to buy things like records, candy bars, video games, beer and pimple cream”, had increasing economic power. In the early 1980s, record companies started to produce music videos, thus providing MTV with free content that could fill the programming hours. And it was the format of music video – “extremely short (four minutes or less) texts that maintain us in an excited state of expectation”6 – which contributed to the hypnotic effect and constant sense of anticipation that made MTV a success.

Distribution

In the early 1980s, cable operators were very reluctant to distribute MTV. However, starting from the principle that operators would carry their content in response to young people’s demand, MTV executives came up with the “I want my MTV” slogan. They thought up a publicity campaign that would capitalise on kids’ sense of ownership, asking music personalities such as Mick Jagger and Madonna to repeat the motto: “Call your cable company and tell them I want my MTV… too much is never enough.”

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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.

Programming

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.

Domesticity

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.

  1. Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (London: Plume Book, 2012), 15.

  2. MTV, and also The Movie Channel and children's entertainment and educational channel, Nickelodeon.

  3. The Videocassette & CATV Newsletter, special report, Warner Cable’s QUBE. <http://www.qube-tv.com/qube-tv/QUBE-REPORT.pdf>, accessed 16 February 2020.

  4. The Videocassette & CATV Newsletter, special report, Warner Cable’s QUBE. <http://www.qube-tv.com/qube-tv/QUBE-REPORT.pdf>, accessed 16 February 2020.

  5. This is in reference to Video Killed the Radio Star, the 1979 music video by Buggles and the first video to be aired on MTV.

  6. E. Ann Kaplan, Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism and Consumer Culture (London/New York: Routledge, 1987).

  7. The first cable operator to carry MTV was not in Manhattan but in New Jersey, followed by places such as Wichita, Kansas where a brand new 50-channel cable system was installed. See Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution (London: Plume Book, 2012), 42.

     

  8. Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (London: Verso Books, 2013), 9

  9. Lynn Spigel, Make Room for TV: Television and the Family Ideal in Postwar America (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1992), 2.

  10. See https://ugolapietra.com/anni-80/la-casa-telematica/

  11. Jonathan Crary, Suspensions of Perception: Attention, Spectacle, and Modern Culture (Cambridge/London: The MIT Press, 1999), 13.

Léa-Catherine Szacka
Léa-Catherine Szacka is Senior Lecturer in Architectural Studies at University of Manchester and member of the Manchester Architecture Research Group (MARG). Her work focuses on the history of architecture exhibitions, the history and theory of postmodern architecture, and, more broadly, the relationship between media, architecture and politics since the 1970s.
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