MTV is the most talked-about pop culture success of the '80s. So who can blame the music-video channel for patting itself on the back during its fifth birthday celebration throughout August (with a repeated special every night)--or be surprised that the music industry for offering congratulations in such displays as a multi-page Billboard magazine advertising supplement?
When MTV debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, lots of know-it-alls scoffed at the risky venture--a venture that's gone on to success, fame, controversy and pervasive influence on everything from record sales to jeans ads to $30-million movies.
But here's the question: As MTV hauls out the hoopla, should we, too, don our party hats?
There's no simple yes or no. MTV is a picture puzzle made up of too many pieces. In fact, it's one of the most exciting spots on the TV dial and one of the dullest and most exasperating things television has to offer.
It all depends on when you watch.
When's the best time to watch MTV?
Any time the regular video-then-veejay-talk-then-video programming isn't on. Unfortunately, that's still what's on most of the time.
Hour after hour, this predictable format still revolves around the showing of rock videos, the reading of pop news, the recitation of tour schedules and the pushing of whatever MTV is pushing at the moment. Only a few of the videos are really worth watching. There are never more than two videos in a row without a break--even if the break is only an MTV logo with that same old theme song.
Pseudo-hip veejays still treat almost every video, artist and event with the same namby-pamby attitude. In fact, up until just a couple of months ago, the same five "video jocks" who started in August '81 were still babbling on.
Even when two veejays recently left their positions, it wasn't necessarily cause for hope. True, the worst of all (Nina Blackwood) was one of the two. But the best of the five also went--the pleasantly jocular jock J.J. Jackson (who's remaining with the channel on a "part-time" basis).
Since Blackwood and Jackson have stepped out of their positions, only one permanent veejay has been hired. She's Julie Brown, a veteran of English telly who has come across as neither better nor worse than her new colleagues--but she is different. Her energetic personality is sometimes grating, sometimes amusing.
Since MTV's fledgling period, these video-after-video hours have changed notably in only two ways. There are more commercials, reflecting MTV's surge in viewers and advertisers. And there are a few more black artists--a development that continued after much press criticism and the viewer acceptance of Michael Jackson's videos.
But watch MTV into the night--especially on weekends--and the real changes become apparent.
Almost any time the channel puts on something other than the not-so-merry-go-round of videos, it becomes considerably more interesting.
MTV, for all its faults, is still much more in touch with modern pop music than any other cable channel or network.
Where to start looking for MTV's better side? Try "The Cutting Edge."
OK, this hourlong show is on only once a month (7:30 p.m. every fourth Sunday). And it's produced not by MTV but by a record company, I.R.S. (though it's not limited to that label's artists). But "Edge" is simply the best program about pop music that we have. It lives up to its excellent name, spotlighting the most interesting and adventurous new acts, with a strong emphasis on American bands and on performers from the Los Angeles area.
"Basement Tapes," though currently on a break (it'll return Aug. 7), is another heartening show. For the last three years, this monthly showcase for unsigned bands (at least the ones that can afford to shoot a video and pass an MTV panel) has been rather disappointing for its choices, but it's a valuable competition, with a major-label contract among the grand prizes.
"Rock Influences" (on the third Sunday of every month at 7 p.m.) makes a sometimes entertaining and enlightening connection between current and past performers, with interviews, videos and film clips.
MTV's concerts--one every Saturday night at 8 p.m. for an hour--have generally been well-recorded both in terms of visuals and sound. The choice of acts, though, tends too much toward the duller hard-rock bands. Memorable exceptions: performances by the Police and the Cars.
Unfortunately, MTV's British import "London Calling" has gone the way of the previous English music show "The Tube." Both were disappointing, but still afforded rare views of the London scene.
But there is a rather startling English import on MTV--startling first because it's only marginally musical, and second because it's a sitcom. But what a sitcom. "The Young Ones" (a half-hour at 8:30 p.m. every Sunday) depicts anarchy in the U.K. (in one crazy house, anyway) featuring the silly/surreal adventures of four unlikely housemates.