NEW YORK — Bob Pittman's idea was considered so "crazy" six years ago that the board of directors of the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co.--which had hired the 26-year-old wunderkind to run its Movie Channel--kicked the proposal upstairs to the respective heads of the joint venture: What do you mean a 24-hour TV music cable channel ?
But Pittman's idea--MTV--has become a pop culture sensation. The channel's emphasis on quick-pulsed video imagery has not only turned the record industry inside out, but has also redefined the youth market for film, television and advertising. Remember: The working title for "Miami Vice" was "MTV Cops."
MTV's success has established Pittman as a "televisionary"--as Esquire magazine dubbed him. Built upon a $50-million investment, the channel--now available in about 30 million homes--was a key part of a package purchased last year for $570 million by Viacom International Inc.
Now at 32, however, Pittman is restless. He has announced that he will leave his present post--which also includes overseeing a second music channel (VH-1), the child-oriented Nickelodeon channel and the adult-oriented Nick at Nite--early next year to launch a new, diversified entertainment and communications company that will make records, movies and television programs. The company will be funded by MCA. Both Pittman and MCA will own a 50% interest in the firm whose first venture will be a record label. Viacom also will be involved financially in the label.
So, tonight's third annual MTV Video Music Awards ceremony at the Universal Amphitheatre (part of a hookup that also includes a ceremony at the Palladium in New York City) will be a sort of last hurrah for Pittman.
Besides presenting awards in categories ranging from the year's best video to best choreography in a video, the three-hour program, which will be broadcast live starting at 6 p.m. on MTV, will feature live performances by such acts as Whitney Houston, INXS, the Pet Shop Boys, Robert Palmer and the Monkees. (Tickets are being sold to the public.)
There is debate over MTV's ratings (the latest Nielsen survey suggested the firm's earlier estimates of MTV viewership were too high) and some record industry observers are saying the youth rock audience's fascination with video is fading--just the way it did with video games.
Still, MTV's impact is undeniable--and Pittman, a Mississippi native and son of a Methodist minister, speaks with the authority of the man who made the "crazy" idea work. MTV wasn't his first success. Pittman was considered a radio station programming whiz before he was out of his teens. He was just 23 when New York's WNBC made him its program director. WNBC was soon the highest-rated station in the country.
Pittman was pleased with MTV's success as he sat recently in his office at MTV's headquarters in New York. Yet, he was clearly eager to move forward.
"My history has been based on change," he said. "I started working radio at age 15 and by the time I was 25, I had worked at 13 stations. I am motivated by a challenge . . . by creating things."
Question: Whatever made you think an all-music channel like MTV would work?
Answer: For my generation, rock 'n' roll and television were the two most important things in our lives in terms of entertainment, and it seemed illogical that there wasn't more of a connection--more music on television.
But as soon as I started experimenting with a music show--it was called 'Album Tracks' on WNBC-TV--I realized that music did not lend itself well to the traditional event-scheduling nature of television--the kind of structure where people tune in to see something specific at a certain time.
If you look at MTV today, I think what we have done is break down that pattern. The only connection between what we have done and regular television is that we both come in over the TV set. Basically what we are trying to do is what radio has done fairly well, which is create a mood experience.
How long did it take you to realize that you would need more than just video clips--that contests, live concerts would all play a part in the MTV offering?
I think we realized it before we went on the air. One of the interesting things is that for all the "issues" that have been raised about MTV, no one has ever touched on the real issue of MTV, which is: How do you keep the creativity going? How do you convince creative people to give up a great idea and move on to a new idea? If there is one thing we worry about day after day, it is that issue.
"Saturday Night Live"--in the early days--was probably the most successful at the question of new creativity. If something got big, they wouldn't do it anymore. They wouldn't just give the audience more of what it wanted, even if it would help ratings. They got rid of the old thing and went with the creativity, so that creativity became the image of the program.
Looking back, what was your biggest problem in getting a 24-hour music channel on the air?