Today's teen flicking between MTV's Pimp My Ride, Channel U's diet of urban music and incessant ringtone ads, and Kerrang! TV's heavy rock brand extension might find it hard to believe, but music television was once thought of as a dangerous revolution that could destroy the recording industry.
It wasn't until stars like Madonna, Michael Jackson and George Michael broke through as a result of the medium's marketing clout that its full potential was realized. MTV's launch, in 1979, was one of the defining factors in shaping today's celebrity culture. Pop stars began spending more time at the gym and more money on plastic surgeons, and the successful artists were those who could combine music and image in a perfectly produced, expensively coiffured package. It's a formula that's been working nicely ever since -- for both bands and broadcasters.
As it gears up to celebrate the 25 years since Video Killed the Radio Star heralded its arrival, MTV proudly claims to be available in 481.5 million households in 179 countries, and to have launched more than 100 localized channels around the world. But that original "MTV generation" are now in their 30s and 40s, and rather than the recording industry, the iconic brand is, itself, under siege. Having reinvented itself several times to fight off the threat of other music channels, and with the increased availability of music across the media spectrum, some wonder whether its top-down approach has had its day.
MTV might still be a presence in the bedrooms of today's teenagers, but they'll also have a tinny track coming out of their mobile that was bluetoothed to them by a friend, and are grazing for hours on social networking sites like MySpace or Bebo, and self-selecting the videos they want to see on Yahoo's Launchcast, Google Video or 3 Mobile's video download service. Could MTV go the way of Top of the Pops or Smash Hits, other once unimpeachable music brands that withered once they ceased to be relevant?
Van Toffler, president of MTV Networks, insists not, because the company remains "relentlessly driven by our audience."
"We made the decision a long time ago not to grow old with each generation that passes through our ecosystem," he says.
Keeping MTV fresh and staying in touch with our audience is part of our DNA," adds Michiel Bakker, who oversees MTV's operations in the UK, Ireland and Nordic countries.
Everyone connected with MTV trumpets the way it moved into lifestyle programming -- The Osbournes, Pimp My Ride, Jackass -- to head off the threat of copycat music video channels as evidence of its ability to move with the times. But as all major broadcasters and publishers are finding, the media habits of today's teens are changing at bewildering speed.
MTV's latest evolution offers a clue as to where music television is going -- and the answer is away from television. It has already launched Overdrive around the world, a broadband television network that offers on-demand versions of programs and interviews, but it plans to launch an even bolder experiment.
Called Flux, it will be a replacement for the network's VH2 channel, but the television component will be augmented by the kind of user-generated content that has powered the rise of MySpace, video site YouTube, photo-sharing site Flickr and other so-called "Web 2.0" flavors of the month. Onscreen, a virtual representation, or "avatar," will represent the viewer in the style of a manga cartoon. They will be able to blog via their mobiles, vote for the video playlist and interact with one another via the Web.