When MTV celebrated its fifth anniversary last summer, many critics (Pop Eye included) complained that the 24-hour video channel was a great idea whose time had come . . . and gone.
Ratings were slipping. Morale was low. More important, MTV's reputation as a proving ground for exciting new pop artists had sagged as the video network concentrated on playing a Top 40-style format of proven hit makers and bland pop artists.
But now rock stars are shouting "I want my MTV" again. At the grand old age of 5 1/2, MTV is back on the cutting edge again, largely thanks to a burst of new ideas and energy from new top programming execs like Sam Kaiser and Lee Masters. During the past few months, the video channel has--as one veteran rock observer put it--gone "back to its roots."
Heavy metal, which had largely disappeared from MTV several years ago, is back in force. New music, which had been relegated to a late-night Sunday specialty show, is popping up more frequently. And radio programmers are once again looking to MTV for the latest hits.
Over the last few months, groups like Ratt, Cinderella, Europe, the Beastie Boys, Tesla and the Robert Cray Band have gotten huge MTV exposure, which has paid off in hefty record sales.
Take Ratt (please). The raucous metal band has a platinum album (more than 1 million copies) and sold-out concerts around the country, with almost no radio exposure. The big difference--MTV, which has played the band's "Dance" video in heavy rotation for the past several months.
"MTV can take a bow on this one," said Atlantic Records vice president of promotion Judy Libow. "They've created a tremendous buzz for us. In fact, as a result of the support we've been getting from their video play, we've just re-serviced Top 40 radio with the "Dance" single, with the hope that we can really break the record this time."
Geffen Records A&R exec Tom Zutaut also credited MTV with giving a big push to Tesla, one of his label's new hard-rock bands. "We've sold 100,000 records in six weeks, and MTV has really lead the way," he said. "There's no question that MTV has really gone back to rock. They've stopped playing those syrupy ballads and Smokey Robinson clips every 20 minutes. And it's paid off for us. Tesla's album isn't getting any radio air play in a lot of cities and yet it's selling great, which we definitely attribute to the MTV exposure."
Music industry insiders credit much of MTV's resurgence to recent executive-suite shuffles that have given increased programming responsibilities to Sam Kaiser (who joined MTV last fall after 10 years at Atlantic Records) and Lee Masters, who now serves as general manager of both MTV and its sister channel, VH-1. "What a difference a year makes," said one prominent rock manager, who requested anonymity. MTV's old guard, who are now gone, were sometimes more into advertising numbers than record sales--if you could even get them on the phone. And the channel was trying to please too many people. The new guys are much more accessible, less arrogant--and better still--they're real rock fans."
Since Masters and Kaiser took charge late last year, MTV has cut its rotation nearly in half, down from a play list of about 110 artists last year. Most the groups dropped were pop and dance-oriented bands.
"I think maybe MTV tried to broaden its appeal too much," said Kaiser. "It was an admirable effort, but by playing so many clips it made it hard for anything to stand out. We're trying to play videos enough so they can get a real shot. Even if the clips don't always work, at least we'll feel we played them enough for the group to get a real shot.
"The whole idea here isn't revamping the format so much as refocusing it. We want to get back to the channel's original mandate, which was to break new artists. Our research has shown that our audience expects us to be on the leading edge, to be hip. So it's important for us to fulfill that expectation."
Kaiser added that MTV is gearing its programming toward groups who are perceived as rock artists, though he insisted that black artists will continue to get air play.
"We're really colorblind on that issue," he said. "We're still playing Tina Turner, Aretha Franklin and especially Robert Cray, who's been a real success story for us. They'll be some tough calls, in terms of which artists qualify as rock figures for us, but skin will never be an issue."