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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

Finally we settled on five: Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, J. J. Jackson and a woman who quit before we went on the air because she was not convinced that MTV was going to be better than her radio job. As a last-minute replacement, we found Martha Quinn, who had been given an audition only as a favor to a friend of mine from a radio station where Martha then worked.

"I want my MTV": Actually, this line came after we were on the air. Cable operators, much to our surprise, were not falling all over themselves to carry MTV. As a matter of fact, "I'm not carrying that garbage on my cable system" was a line heard with some frequency. Our challenge was to persuade the operator that there was a real consumer demand for the network. Tom Freston, our head of marketing, and Fred Seibert, of our creative services group, tackled the issue with the agency--the legendary adman George Lois and his associate at that time, Dale Pon, with whom I had worked in radio a few years earlier.

Pon, Seibert and Freston came over to my apartment one night a few weeks later with a "Cable Brats" campaign idea. I couldn't find the value in defining our audience as cable brats--but a line in the commercial did hit home. After a long night of haggling, arguing and rewriting--that line, "I want my MTV," became the headline and the call to action. Over time, the Police, Mick Jagger, David Bowie, the Who and Madonna appeared in commercial spots telling the viewers to call their cable companies and "demand your MTV."

The campaign worked like a charm. Potential MTV-ites called their cable companies and said, "I want my MTV." At a cable convention shortly after the campaign began, I was approached by an old-school cable operator who was screaming at me that MTV was terrible. When I asked him why, he said: "It's destroyed our office. We can't get any work done. The phone keeps ringing with all the people who want us to hook up cable for them so they can get MTV." He was dead serious--he didn't want all those new customers; it was too much work. Fortunately for us, most cable operators did want the new customers.

The attitude of youthful rebellion--"nothing's sacred"--characterized the attitude of the channel as expressed in the on-air promos and look.

We parodied everything we could think of. We made fun of the broadcast networks. Remember the "Hey, you, don't watch that, watch this" series of promos? And the most fun was defying all the "rules" about promos and logos. We used cheap-looking black-and-white public-domain footage and changed our slogan from day to day, and horror of all horrors, our logo changed colors, it moved, and it never appeared in the same place or in the same way twice. No rule was left unbroken--an attitude was firmly established.

After MTV launched in August, 1981, Tom Freston and John Sykes went to one of the few markets where we had been available from the launch date--Tulsa, Okla. Their mission was to find even a faint clue that MTV was finding an audience and having an effect on selling records. We needed evidence, even if limited, that MTV could influence record sales, so that we could persuade record companies to budget to produce more videos as they completed their plans for 1982.

I expected that Freston and Sykes would really have to dig to find even a shred of the proof we needed. Much to my surprise, the first day of the reconnaissance mission I got a late-night phone call from Sykes reporting that as soon as MTV hit the air, all the Buggles records in the local stores blew off the shelves--completely sold out. Customers in the stores were talking about MTV, and there was a run on other artists that MTV was playing. It was at this moment that I first realized MTV was a hit--it actually worked.

Over the next few years, there were other key moments that pointed to the success of MTV. Designer Norma Kamali began producing fashion videos and extolling the virtues of MTV as an influence on fashion. "Flashdance" and "Miami Vice" were both indications of the success of MTV.

Beginning in 1983, we began to see the Nielsen ratings, which showed the network to be a consumer success and, in 1984, to be the highest-rated basic cable network. By the time MTV became profitable in the fourth quarter of 1983, it was obvious that it was a success with the consumer.

From the perspective of 10 years, the entire birth of MTV was an absolutely remarkable process. Built on Steve Ross' vision of narrowcast cable networks with his and Jim Robinson's unwavering support, a small group of entertainment iconoclasts created (often by accident) an entirely new form of television. But what none of us realized at the time was that MTV was not only a television channel but the voice of our generation. It would go on to have an influence on our entire society, both here in the United States and around the world.

However, from my personal point of view, the greatest accomplishment of MTV was bringing together a truly remarkable group of people--the original team that set the creative culture that underpins MTV even today. It was their skill, innovation and dedication that gave the world MTV and gave me fabulous memories and enduring friendships.

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