Stuff that sucks

Read transcripts of the Frontline documentary on MTV, “The Merchants of Cool,” at

I Want My MTV: MTV changed the world. Too bad the cable network itself has changed for the worse.

The cable network celebrated its 20th anniversary a couple of weeks ago with a self-congratulatory, three-hour “Live and Barely Legal” special, and recent weeks have seen dozens of media reports describing how MTV changed music, fashion, movies, television, advertising and even the way our brains process information. But as anyone who’s tried to watch the channel in recent years can tell you, one important point was lost amid the hoopla: MTV, in case you hadn’t noticed, really sucks these days.

When MTV premiered in 1981, it was a shoestring operation based on a simple but revolutionary idea: music videos, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Much of what was aired was low-budget, poorly crafted and downright silly, but the new medium was an immediate hit, as legions of teens found themselves almost inexplicably drawn to these short, quick-cut little dramas acted to the beat of Adam Ant or Rick Springfield. In fact, for people of a certain age, the arrival of MTV had all the impact that the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show had for an earlier generation, and music would never be the same.

As MTV grew, its influence went beyond music, impacting fashion, politics and other media. The changes it brought weren’t always good—even MTV execs concede that the network may have helped to shorten the attention span of an entire generation—but it remained, until perhaps the early ’90s, a lively, irreverent and ultimately positive force in the culture.

Somewhere along the line, however, things went horribly wrong. The network dropped much of its music programming, as video play dropped a reported 36.5 percent between 1995 and 2000. In place of the music came, as Butthead himself would put it if he were still allowed on the network, a lot of stuff that sucks. Though it’s still called “music television,” MTV is now primarily devoted to idiotic soap operas (Spyder Games, Undressed), increasingly tired “reality shows” (The Real World, Road Rules), infantile slapstick that would have embarrassed the Three Stooges (Jackass, The Tom Green Show) and a seemingly endless celebration of spring break, complete with binge drinking and wet T-shirts. On the rare occasions a video is aired, chances are it’ll be the same one played an hour ago—or at least more of the safe, pre-packaged teen pop the network is devoted to these days.

On the one hand, none of this is surprising. MTV is owned by Viacom, the corporate behemoth that owns CBS, Paramount Pictures, Blockbuster Video, Simon & Schuster, Virgin Megastores and too many other companies to list here. We probably shouldn’t expect anything more than lowest common denominator programming designed to move product for Viacom. But there was a time when MTV’s programming hinted at an empowerment—not an exploitation—of youth, and we’d like to see the channel’s programmers consider the difference as they ponder their 20th anniversary.