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COVER STORY : The Man Behind the Monster : It may be hard to recall life before MTV, but Bob Pittman, who shaped and sold the concept, remembers it well

July 28, 1991|ROBERT PITTMAN | Robert Pittman started his broadcasting career at the age of 15 as a disc jockey in Mississippi. In the mid-'70s, he engineered the rise to dominance of WMAQ in Chicago and WNBC in New York. He joined Warner Amex in 1979 at age 25 as director of programming and soon became vice president with responsibility in developing new programming, out of which came . Pittman was president and chief executive officer of MTV Networks before leaving in 1986. He continues to launch new cable channels for Time Warner; his latest is Court TV

The funny thing about the beginning of MTV is that the idea of a music service had been around for a while. I had produced and been host of "Album Tracks," a music show on the NBC-owned TV stations in 1978. A video music show had run on our sister network, Nickelodeon, in 1980. The Warner Amex Qube cable system in Columbus, Ohio, had produced a continuing series of video music programs in 1979 and 1980. And there was actually a video music network that was on the air before MTV--Video Concert Hall, I believe was the name. The success of MTV was the execution of the idea--our particular vision of the programming and the unique attitude and culture of the network that we developed.

We realized that almost all TV was narrative in form--after the structure of beginning, middle and end. The appeal of music, however, has nothing to do with that structure. Music is about emotion and attitude--it makes you feel . It moves you. With the creation of MTV, we changed the form of TV to fit the form of music, as opposed to trying to fit music into a narrative structure.

Also, we understood that music videos were program elements, not complete programs by themselves. MTV was the program.

Early on we made a key decision that we would be the voice of Young America. We would not grow old with our audience. We accepted the fact that viewers would grow out of MTV and new viewers would grow into it. For this strategy to succeed, we laid as our cornerstone the concept of "change for change sake." We would change before the audience was ready for us to change. We would continually reinvent MTV so that it didn't look like it belonged to the last generation of viewers--or even worse, that it looked accessible to 40- and 50-year-olds. We would stay ahead of the audience--not follow the TV programming tradition of mirroring the audience.

Once we had the corporate go-ahead, we were racing the clock to get on the air.

If you remember, the state of the record industry in 1980 was alarming. After the go-go '70s, the record industry had hit a wall in 1980. Radio had stopped playing new music, records were rarely identified when played, the new music out of England couldn't get exposure in the United States, and the record business's costs had spiraled out of control. A bad combination--high costs and no new breakthrough records.

It also appeared that in an effort to save money, most of the record companies were set to cut the cost of producing videos from their budgets. At that time, videos, more than radio, were used primarily in Europe to "break" records. They were seen in this country in some record stores and trade shows but weren't of much importance to the artists; most of them never saw their finished videos. So it looked like the record companies were saying, "We've been investing in these things for 10 years, and they never did anything for us." It was imperative that we get on the air in 1981 with enough time to prove that we could sell records before the companies completed their 1982 budgets.

That period seems like a great blur, but some wonderful moments and events stick in my mind.

The first was our people. We were building more than just a channel; we were building a culture. I had decided that the most important function I could perform was to make sure we had one consistent vision. To that end, I personally interviewed every employee in the original MTV programming group. I was looking for a unique blend--smarts and ignorance. We put together a group of smart, aggressive people, yet none of them had ever done the job he or she was hired to do. Everyone was ignorant of the traditions and conventions of the job, freeing us all to do it a new way. And all of us were being given our shot--the hunger for a success ensured long hours and tireless devotion to the channel.

I had envisioned MTV as "another kind of TV," an alternative to traditional TV. The plan to create a hipness for MTV was to position it as the very opposite of the three networks--a sort of "stick-it-in-your-eye" approach. To that end, my choice for the name was TV-1--stealing a leadership position by claiming that everything else was secondary.

Unfortunately, we couldn't clear TV-1--our legal department found another business with that name. The best we could get was TV-M. TV-M it was, until, in one of many late-night, free-thinking sessions, our head of music programming and scheduling, Steve Casey, said in his usual unemotional, laid-back manner: "Don't you think MTV sounds a little better than TV-M?" He sold us--and it became MTV.

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