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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

"Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles will be remembered, if for nothing else, as the video clip that launched MTV. The date: Aug. 1, 1981.

Of course, MTV didn't kill the radio stars. It enshrined them. It energized rock 'n' roll culture. Everybody associated with music benefited--from radio stations to Rolling Stone magazine. MTV turned pop music artists into recognizable faces. Before MTV, the top artists were rarely recognized. But within weeks of the launch of MTV, artists began hearing the refrain "I saw you on MTV."

And MTV had an even wider impact on our culture--in music, fashion, politics, art, advertising, television and movies. In music, it popularized a whole new kind of music and made visual appeal a prerequisite for musical artists.

Through MTV, Middle America was exposed to what had largely been big-city fashion and trends. Videos of fashion lines popped up in stores; when Norma Kamali opened her New York store, she showed her line on video monitors instead of mannequins. The look and feel of music videos were quickly adopted into television series, motion pictures, even political advertising. Candidates began to sell themselves with an attitude and an image. And video bloomed as an art form.

MTV is now such a part of American culture that it seems hard to believe that MTV was an idea that almost wasn't.

American Express had agreed to buy half of Warner Cable in late 1979. Out of that purchase came two companies: one that operated cable systems, another that was established to create networks for the cable industry. I was hired as the programmer to put together the first 24-hour cable service, an all-movie pay service that became the Movie Channel.

After the first few months of growth for the Movie Channel in 1980, I was charged with developing the product and marketing for the company's first advertiser-supported cable venture.

At that point, when CNN and ESPN were in their early days, the major concern was not the product but whether any basic-cable venture could succeed. At that time, advertisers had a rule: They bought national advertising only on services or programs that had a 3.0 rating (meaning that 3% of U.S. households with TV were tuned in) and 70% coverage of households--a feat that no cable network has yet achieved.

(It was actually this seemingly hopeless financial situation that caused the owners to give me the responsibility for the entire business side of MTV about a year and a half after its launch.)

A development team I had put together earlier in the year had miraculously worked through all the major hurdles of getting a video music channel on the air--dealing with the musicians unions, finding out who had the rights to the videos, getting the videos, determining what our standards would be, working with cable operators on how to get stereo sound and figuring out how we would shoot the veejay segments.

Included in this team were Tom Freston, now the chief executive officer of MTV Networks; John Sykes, president of Chrysalis Records; Carolyn Baker of Warner Bros. Records; Steve Casey, a successful radio programmer; Fred Seibert, a principal in Fred/Alan, the advertising agency for MTV; Mark Booth, who would later launch MTV in Europe, and for a brief period Robert Morton, now the producer of "Late Night With David Letterman."

But the skepticism about the basic-cable business led the board of directors of the Warner Communications and American Express joint venture to turn down the idea for MTV in late 1980.

Fortunately, my immediate bosses, Jack Schneider and John Lack, got us into the court of last appeal--a meeting with Steve Ross, then the chairman of Warner Communications; Jim Robinson, chairman of American Express, and their key executives, including David Horowitz from the Warner side and Lou Gerstner from the American Express side.

We all felt confident that Ross would support the idea. After all, it was Ross who had developed and championed the vision of "narrowcasting"--in which a cable network takes on one subject matter and does only that, continuously, rather than trying to be all things to all people--and Warner had a big investment in music. Additionally, Horowitz had emerged as our guardian angel--nurturing the idea along at the various divisions of Warner Communications.

It was American Express that was the great unknown. The company's public image was hardly synonymous with rock 'n' roll. After we spent a grueling few hours playing videos, reviewing research and laying out the entire programming plan, the answer came very quickly. Jim Robinson looked at Ross and said, "OK, I'm in for our half." And that was it--we were on our way. (Jim told me a number of years later that he saw it as an extension of radio and that because of my success in radio he was willing to sign on.)

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