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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

Originally, we thought MTV would be three equal-size letters like ABC , NBC and CBS . Seibert of Fred/Alan, who was in charge of our on-air look, had put the logo out to a number of designers to get back some ideas. Among those designers were three "kids" in a loft downtown, Manhattan Design. They came back with the idea for a big M , with TV spray-painted over it. We cut the paint drips off the TV , and that's the logo. It's unbelievable that we paid about $1,000 for one of the decade's best-known logos.

Besides the MTV theme music at the top of every hour, the one constant in MTV in the first few years was our on-air ID showing the first man stepping onto the moon and placing the MTV flag on the lunar surface instead of the American flag. We decided on this approach because it represented the "next step," a new era--it was also big, grandiose, a little irreverent when it came to the MTV flag, and best of all, it was cheap. The key elements for this to succeed were the famous words of Neil Armstrong: "One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind." Every hour, every day, was designed to begin with those words.

To cover ourselves legally, we sent Armstrong a "negative-option" permission letter: "We're going to use your voice unless we hear from you before Aug. 1." And we thought no more of it. A few days before we launched, a frantic Seibert came flying into my office. We had just received a letter from Armstrong's lawyer threatening to sue us if we used his client's voice. We had no time and, worse, no money to redo this on-air ID. So we took his voice off and used the ID with just music. Not at all what we had envisioned, yet, fortunately, it worked fine.

The videos were the toughest part of my job. Very few record executives naturally warmed to the idea of MTV. I still remember lugging big white presentation charts with John Sykes to all the record companies to explain what MTV could do for them. We pointed out that radio wasn't playing new music--especially all that "new wave" music from England. We promised that every other video would be a non-hit, something new. We would introduce the new wave to America. (An easy promise, since most of the mainstay American artists had not done videos and most of the unknown, new wave artists had.)

The reason you see the name of the artist, song, album and record label at the beginning and end of the videos on MTV was an action we took in response to many radio stations of the early '80s, which deliberately didn't identify the music they were playing. (The theory was that you'd listen longer in an attempt to try to figure out the names of the songs.) To induce the record companies to give us their support, we went the extra step of identifying the label so that a potential buyer in an out-of-the-way town could even give a store all the information it needed to order the record--the promise of a sure-fire way to turn airplay on MTV into record sales for the record companies.

At the end of all the presentations, most companies gave us their videos. Two companies gave us their videos only because I had "broken" some records for these companies back in the '70s when I was a radio programmer, and this was their way of returning the favor. A third one gave us the videos because Horowitz of Warner Communications personally intervened and persuaded this holdout to give MTV a try. Two companies refused to give us their videos at all--MCA and PolyGram. Fortunately, at that point in time, neither company had a large number of videos.

When we finally launched, we had about 250 videos, not enough to have a video music network. We were taking a very deliberate gamble. If MTV worked, it would sell records, and record companies would produce more videos. If MTV didn't work, record companies would probably not produce more videos--but who would care, because we'd be out of business anyway?

The other big video question we pondered was which worked better, the concept video or the concert-footage video? Only later did we finally conclude that concept or reality was not the variable. Videos that worked were videos in which the visuals created the same emotion and attitude as the music did, whether concept or concert. It was compatibility that mattered, not techniques.

Jerry McGee from the Ogilvy & Mather advertising agency came up with the label veejay . It was a throwaway idea--an offhand comment that stuck. And veejays turned out to be the hardest part of putting together the channel. We auditioned about 1,000 potential veejays. It was hard to describe our vision, because no one knew what an MTV was. And it showed: Most of those auditioning looked like hopeful replacements for Phil Donahue or Johnny Carson.

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