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Music videos, in their rough form, had already existed for decades. They just weren’t on TV—at least not in the United States. In the 1940s, Mills Panoram Soundies were jukeboxes into which you could deposit a dime in order to watch a short clip of someone such as Nat King Cole or Louis Armstrong lip-synching a song while being projected onto a small plastic screen by a lens and a mirror with closed-loop film. In the 1960s, the European version of the video jukebox, the French Scopitone, was popular. In the 1970s, on the heels of Beatlemania, record companies began producing promotional clips—visual interpretations of songs—to help sell albums. Bands like The Rolling Stones, The Beatles and The Who could be seen on European TV programs such as the British Top of the Pops. Michael Nesmith—a former member of the made-for-TV band, the Monkees—turned his attention to producing music video clips for television in Europe. He also had an idea for a music video show in America. John Lack, one of MTV’s early crusaders, heard about it. The stage for MTV was now set. . . .
The Origins of the Idea
In 1979, American Express bought 50 percent of the Warner Cable Company. It formed Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company to pursue specialized entertainment. Fortunately, I got a firsthand look at what was about to happen, as Warner Amex became a client of Scali McCabe Sloves. At the time, the company was beginning to explore the concept of using cable TV for narrowcast-ing: Nickelodeon was aimed at children and The Movie Channel at adults. Both became clients. John Lack was executive vice president of marketing and programming. Lack, a 33-year-old former executive at CBS Radio, liked music. Nesmith approached him and pitched his idea for a music video show in the United States. It seemed like a natural fit. So Lack hired Nesmith to produce a 30-minute pilot for Nickelodeon called “Popclips.” The program was so popular it inspired Lack to try to create a cable channel dedicated entirely to music videos.
MTV: Reinventing the Music Experience
Ignore the Naysayers
John Lack’s vision was wise from a commercial point of view. The record companies were experiencing an unprecedented industry recession; they needed a shot in the arm. And there were other industry trends that supported his vision. The majority of U.S. radio stations ignored the more controversial punk movement in Europe, along with its protege, new wave. New music wasn’t being heard much on the radio, so people weren’t buying new albums. Lack was convinced that MTV could become a venue in which record companies could introduce new artists to consumers. With some difficulty, he convinced top-level executives at American Express and Warner of the value of their idea.
Nonlinear Thinking ...and Another Creative Leap
When Bob Pittman was brought on to design the format for MTV, he envisioned a television station with no programs: no beginning, no middle, no end. Pittman, who in his early twenties had had a short but wildly successful career as a radio programmer, was responding to what he described as the nonlinear thinking of the next generation. This was a true creative leap. Dubbing his targeted audience “TV babies,” Pittman designed the product for a generation that had grown up with the TV on. That audience sought heightened stimulation, had shorter attention spans, and would welcome a loose, amorphous format.
Pittman knew he had to promote the channel itself—not individual shows, as the networks did. So he and former on-air radio promoter Fred Seibert worked to design a logo that would express the spirit of rock music. When they arrived at the “M” as a brick with the spray-painted “TV,” they had to fight for it over the loud protests of in-house sales and marketing people, as well as the advertising firm with which they worked. Everyone argued that it didn’t conform to traditional standards for successful logos. Which was exactly their aim.
DoYou Know What BusinessYouAre In?
I Want My MTV: Making Consumers the Brand's Ambassadors
Perhaps the most powerful communications victory was the “I Want My MTV” campaign. One year after its 1981 launch, MTV was facing extinction. It was having a difficult time convincing local cable companies across the country to carry the network. Advertisers were growing more and more reluctant to support cable in general, and record labels were hedging over providing videos free of charge. But the founders knew the channel had a kind of grassroots power.
After the first few weeks of airing, Pittman sent scouts to conduct field studies of what would later be dubbed “the Tulsa virus.” The intent was to find out whether MTV was having an effect on record sales in areas of the country where the channel was available. What they discovered in Tulsa and in other small cities such as Wichita, Des Moines, and Syracuse, was astonishing. Record stores were seeing dramatic increases in sales of albums whose artists could be seen on MTV Local radio stations were inundated with requests for new music groups that had been featured on the network, including Squeeze, the Tubes, and Talking Heads. But even more interesting were stories the scouts heard about the change in behavior of young people. Kids without cable were traveling to visit friends who had cable, just to watch videos. They started changing the way they dressed. One barber in Wichita told MTV scouts that boys were coming in asking for “Rod Stewart haircuts.” The irony was that MTV wasn’t yet available in large, culturally sophisticated cities such as Los Angeles and New York. Progressive music, through the medium of MTV, was reaching young people living in quiet, conservative American towns, allowing them a kind of identification with a larger, more radical world.