Nearly five years later, there's a different sort of noise being made about MTV and music videos. Bad noise: It's old hat, it's killing the music, the clips all look the same, the ratings are down.
Journey and Van Halen - two of the biggest names in rock-and-roll - put out new albums and don't make videos. Their records go to the top of the charts anyway. Proof positive: MTV has lost its clout.
"Part of the problem is real and part of it is imagined," says Len Epand, who heads up music-video production at PolyGram Records. "The imagined part is that there was a lot of hype about the advent of music video and the rocketing growth of MTV. The attention was a bit outsized. I was waiting for the pendulum to swing back the other way, for the media to proclaim it dead.
"However, the real part of it is that all the exposure (that) videos have received has sort of worn away the novelty gloss. . . . The fact is that there's a glut of videos, and a sense of sameness pervades the medium."
In an attempt to eradicate that sameness, MTV has instituted a number of programming changes. Late last month, two of the channel's original veejays - Nina Blackwood and J.J. Jackson - were fired. Last week, Julie Brown, a 26- year-old Briton, became MTV's newest veejay. Two more permanent veejay slots remain to be filled.
Additionally, MTV has added:
* 120 Minutes, a weekly program of progressive and undiscovered music.
* A new-video hour ("the best new videos from major artists") on Monday nights.
* New weekly lifestyle reports, such as Apollonia's Addicted to Style.
* Bigger contests and promotions, including a Liberty Weekend boat trip in New York Harbor with ZZ Top.
* The International Hour, a monthly show featuring videos, artists and information from around the world.
* Two situation comedies, the British import The Young Ones and The Monkees. On Sunday, an all-day Monkees marathon wraps up MTV's airing of the '60s series; another comedy series is being considered as a replacement.
* A new top-of-the-hour station ID.
"We have added a lot," says Tom Freston, MTV's senior vice president and general manager. "The look of the channel is going to change graphically.
"We're a bit more ambitious than we've been in the past in the area of original programming," he says, citing the success of MTV's coverage of the Montreux (Switzerland) Rock Festival last month and spring break in Daytona Beach, Fla. "We intend to get out of the studio more. But the programming will still be music-based or lifestyle-based."
Some observers view MTV's spate of changes as a reaction to sagging ratings. According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., MTV's ratings dropped from an 0.9 rating in the third quarter of 1985 to 0.6 in the fourth (each ratings point equals about 859,000 households nationwide). MTV's peak Nielsen rating, in 1983, was 1.2.
But the method by which Nielsen monitors cable households is in dispute, and MTV (among other groups) claims the ratings service includes too few
adolescents in its sample base.
"It's an obvious conclusion to draw: Ratings dip and we make changes," says Freston. "But that's not the case." The music video will remain the backbone of MTV's programming, he says. The rest is just a case of ''aggressive evolvement."
"I can't tell you how strongly we contest the current Nielsen situation," he says. "The changes aren't in response to a ratings drop. They are in response to obvious opportunities that are there."
Freston says that MTV's ad revenues have never been better, and that despite the Nielsen numbers, advertisers who want to hone in on the 12-to-34 age group still go straight to MTV. Projected advertising revenues for 1986 are $97 million, an increase of $11 million over last year.
"Revenues and profits have never been higher," he says. "Response to our contests is as high as it's ever been. The supply of video product to us is bigger than it's ever been before. We certainly don't see any threat to our business."
While MTV is accentuating the positive, industry observers see the music- video industry - and MTV as its leading exponent - in a state of transition.
"It's an industry waiting for something to happen," says Jim McCullaugh, Billboard magazine's home-entertainment editor. "And I don't know what that catalyst might be. . . . Certainly, MTV is on the defensive about their ratings, and there's no question that there has been something of a turn-off factor about music video. . . .
"I think you have to give MTV a lot of credit for pioneering music videos, but I think that a lot of the bloom is off the rose there.
"And I think that one of the problems that MTV has run into is that they're a 24-hour channel and yet they have a very narrow vision of programming."
McCullaugh says that even though there are hundreds of video-clip programs around the country now - plus cable shows such as the USA Network's Night Flight - MTV and VH-1, its sister channel for older audiences, remain the only national 24-hour music-video networks.
"I think they finally realized that in order for them to be around for the long term, they're going to have to act a bit more like a 24-hour TV station (with) more traditional television approaches," McCullaugh says. "You just can't get by showing clips for 24 hours a day, seven days a week."
McCullaugh and others are high on the home music-video market. "Stereo television is going to make a big difference," McCullaugh says. Soon there will be homes with two, even three, stereo TVs, he says, leading the sale and rental of home music-videos "to become a very major product area."
However, the rise of home music-video sales does not appear to threaten MTV. In much the same way that radio play sparks record sales (and vice versa), says PolyGram's Epand, home music-video sales will increase MTV viewership.
Epand is also heartened because as the home music-video market has boomed, his video clips - made for an average of $50,000 to $60,000 per song - have a life beyond MTV's rotation lists.
Another complaint leveled at MTV these days is that its play list is top- heavy on hoary "dinosaur acts" at the expense of new artists. Early on, the music channel was credited with breaking then-unknowns such as Duran Duran, Madonna and Culture Club. Now you flip on MTV and see Bob Seger, Heart and the Moody Blues.
"In the beginning, it was wonderful because they did play a lot of new
artists, and they were responsible for breaking a lot of new artists," says McCullaugh. "There was a direct correlation to record sales.
"Unfortunately, what happened then is what happened to cable generally. Cable was supposed to be the great vehicle for alternative programming. . . . And then the cable operators basically started playing it safe. I have never seen - with a few exceptions here and there - real adventuresome programming on cable. I think the reason for that is they got caught up in the same trap: numbers, ratings, advertisers and all that."
MTV's Freston acknowledges that the channel features more videos by established names now than it did in '81 and '82.
"Remember, in the beginning, a lot of the so-called superstars didn't have videos," he says. "The videos that were on hand were like the Duran Durans, by and large a lot of European groups who had been using video because it was already an established form of promotion over there.
"But you will see on the MTV playlist every week more new acts than you'll find on virtually any radio station in America," Freston adds. "They are balanced, certainly, with videos from major stars, but you can point to groups within the last year that have had very, very strong successes because of MTV: Pet Shop Boys, Robert Palmer's 'Addicted to Love,' til tuesday, a-ha - there are definite acts that we can point to. Even the Monkees."
One new act that has benefited from video exposure is the Hooters, the Philadelphia-based band whose debut album, Nervous Night, has been on the Billboard charts for 57 weeks, has been certified platinum and has generated four Top 40 singles. The group's home music-video is nearing 25,000 in sales.
"I don't think we would have been as successful without video," says Hooters manager Steve Mountain. "I think MTV was very beneficial to us. . . . We wanted to use video as a marketing tool, because you can't tour and get into every market. . . . I think there's a lot of tools out there and I think maybe that's the most valuable one if you don't misuse it."
However, he warns that in the wrong hands and with the wrong bands, videos can do as much harm as they can good.
"It really has a lot to do with how talented your band is in front of a camera and how they come across," says Mountain. "Singers are singers and they're not necessarily movie stars."
One band that certainly isn't made up of movie stars is Journey, the venerable San Francisco-based hard-rock outfit. Herbie Herbert, Journey's manager, helped fan the MTV-is-on-the-wane flames when he decided not to make a video for the group's latest album, Raised on Radio.
"Why should we go and put ourselves at the mercy of a video director to conceptualize our music and to put a very short-lived, limited-life span visual accompaniment (on it)?" Herbert asked a reporter recently. "Surely, there are songs too numerous to mention that have (withstood) the test of time. People have heard them a thousand times and would gladly hear them another thousand times.
"But, can you say that about the best video you ever saw? Can you really look at it a thousand times? Could you even look at it a hundred times? I think not."
PolyGram's Epand sees the decision by some acts - established and new - not to make video clips as a sign of the maturation of the industry.
"There's a lot more discretion being brought to bear than there was a year ago," he says. "A year ago, people in the record companies would have the attitude that they shouldn't even sign a rock band unless they do a video. So, therefore, you do a video for every act."
He adds: "As for the question of certain acts opting not to do videos, I don't think it's necessarily a signpost for some future trend. Acts both established and young have to decide whether video is a medium they can be creative with and come off well in.
"And Journey, it is well-known - I've heard from many sources - that they realize that they're just not good in video. They look silly. . . . So I think that was a real wise decision.
"I've been saying for a long time now that not every band is suited for video. We shouldn't do it as a knee-jerk reaction."
At PolyGram, Epand says that about 80 percent of the artists with new releases this year have made a video to promote the records.
At the International Music & Media Conference in Montreux last month, MTV programming chief Les Garland rued Journey's video boycott.
"As enormous as that record might be today - let's assume it's selling at a rate of 75,000 copies per week without a video - with the video, in good rotation, which it certainly would have on MTV, it might be selling at a rate of 125,000 copies a week," he said. "If I were afraid of the look of my band, or of how they might be portrayed in a video . . . I would consider making a very creative video, without the band in it."
But there's another factor to be accounted for when it comes to sales: radio.
"Despite MTV and a lot of these local clip shows, the one thing that still drives record sales is radio," says Billboard's McCullaugh. "If the album and the single don't get on the radio, it doesn't get sold. It's as simple as that. These other exposure mediums are great. They're gravy and they add a lot, but basically it's radio airplay. That's always been the bottom line."
And what about the future of MTV and music video?
"Something has to happen and I think something will. You certainly have people experimenting, whether it's a Laurie Anderson or a David Bowie or a Godley & Creme," McCullaugh says. "The industry is still vital from a creative point of view, I just think from a marketing and commercial standpoint, it's in a state of flux. But I'm convinced that music video will continue to be a major player."
"The whole thing's just going through this stormy media patch and a period of growth and transition," says PolyGram's Epand. "I was doing music videos way before MTV, and MTV is at the heart of what we do now, so our fortunes do rise and fall with theirs. . . . I'm definitely supportive of it, and I'm also very confident that the format will carry on."