Back to Session 12
Issues concerning culture and personality are addressed everyday in the popular media--from a call for "Family Values" to concern for the conflicting cultural value of "free speech" protection for pornography to censorship of TV programs that are "too violent" for children. On the one hand, we promote "safe sex," but seldom in TV movies or soaps are actors seen portraying protective behavior or asking hard questions or saying no. Spontaneous sex sells programming and makes it "sexy," removing the public service announcements on safe sex from the notion of romance or sequential responsible behavior.
Click here for one authors opinion on the role of MTV in American Culture.
48. WHAT MTV HATH WROUGHT
There were extravagant predictions made about how MTV-short for Music Television-would change the music industry when it debuted in 1981. It was said by some that by putting the emphasis on visuals, rather than on sound, MTV would change the type of rock artists who would succeed. Others noted that MTV would diminish the importance of live performances, help take political rebellion out of the music, and blur the distinction between programming and commercials-since rock videos were little more than sophisticated advertisements for the record companies and artists producing them. And it was all true.
By the end of the eighties, in fact, many assumed that MTV had been "the most influential single cultural product of the (past) decade," as one writer put it-the source of everything from that decade's ironic style to the rise of television programming geared not to the masses but to a specific demographic group (sometimes called "narrowcasting"). Less than two years later, Newsweek was saying that "MTV has changed the way we talk, dress, dance, make and consume music, and how we process information." Billboard went further: "(N)o other single force on television has had such a strong and startling impact on our culture since the advent of TV itself." If anything, the accolades have multiplied in the years since. Today, MTV has become virtually synonymous with American culture.
In retrospect, it's no surprise that MTV proved a force in the recording and musical industries dominated by young consumers, as its continuous televising of short music videos drew a small but steady audience. Nor is there any issue about MTV's innovativeness or profitability, given its low overhead.
Instead, the question is why this small cable network changed a mass medium like television at all, which, in turn, enabled it to influence the whole culture. After all, MTV's videos-often infused with a surrealistic style that recalled experimental movies-have never been popular with the vast majority of people who watch TV. A 1991 survey found that, in a typical moment, MTV was watched by less than one home out of 160 with cable, and one in 300 overall. By contrast, the major networks routinely post ratings some 50 times better than MTV which tends to attract only about 350,000 households at any one time. At best, MTV is an acquired taste even for most of its young target audience, who watch for an average of 18 minutes at a time. Yet taste it we all have, whether we like it or not, and most of us fuddy-duddies do not.
To be fair: MTV was never designed to reach the masses. "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," former MTV president Bob Pittman once wrote. Meticulously organized from demographic research in the early days of cable in 1980 and 1981, the network was designed to appeal to the notoriously hard-to-reach 18-to-29-year-old age group-sought after by advertisers because it has so much discretionary income, but ignored by the major networks because this group's preferred programming doesn't tend to appeal to the masses.
To reach these young viewers, a group of young executives decided to develop a channel merging rock and television by telecasting continuous music videos-a form that had been kicking around for some 40 years and shown sporadically in rock and dance clubs. Though some videos cost millions to make and were in every way striking, many were surprisingly amateurish-almost like five-minute home movies. Sometimes they had some narrative roughly parallel to the song, but more often they consisted merely of the band (or singer) clowning in front of the camera while a wave of scantily-clad women or surrealistic images unconnected to the music danced by.
Equally important to MTV's success, founder Bob Pittman decided he had to build not only a channel but a sensibility. With that in mind, the network tried to create an "environment"-a "channel with no programs, no beginning, no middle, no end." We understood that music videos were program elements, not complete programs by themselves," Pittman once wrote. "MTV was the program." A similar approach would come to distinguish other cable networks owned by the parent company-sister VH-1, which played videos for older viewers, and Nickelodeon, which replayed old TV series for baby boomers in prime time, and original programming for their kids during the day. "In every case," one MTV chairman said, "we try to make the audience associate with the network first, the shows second." To the extent that this notion succeeded, it would be said that the first generation of TV viewers watched individual programs, while the second generation watched networks or just television.
MTV debuted on August 1, 1981, with the voice-over announcement "Ladies and gentlemen-rock and roll!" followed by a prophetic video by the Buggles, "Video Killed the Radio Star." Within just three years the network was profitable- the good fortune helped considerably by record companies which supplied the videos for free because of the way they boosted sales. Thanks, in part, to the Dire Straits song "Money for Nothing," the saying "I want my MTV" became an international battle cry. By 1984, MTV had become the highest-rated basic cable network, with a 1.1 rating-though this was still in the early days of cable, when only about one in five homes was wired for the service. And that translated into little more than 160,000 homes at any one time.
As critic John Leland once wrote, perhaps MTV offered the first type of TV programming that hadn't been adapted from radio, the stage, or the movies-though playing a series of songs every hour was a format straight out of the radio playbook. Yet, within months, MTV was rescuing a moribund recording industry, even while rearranging the elements that had traditionally led to pop stardom. In the new universe of visual sensation, such rock acts as Duran Duran and Madonna flourished-as did others who were photogenic or produced flashy themes that could be illustrated easily. Meanwhile, critics charged that MTV both regularly shortchanged black artists and often displayed videos notorious for their violence and misogyny.
By 1983, MTV was already influencing movie-making: Much of the popular Flashdance was little more than a dance video at greater length. Still, even though MTV had an immediate effect on both rock and movies, its influence on television programming was subtler. Those initially drawn to its style were advertisers-no surprise, perhaps, since MTV was a network devoted solely to running a form of 24-hour-a-day commercials. Washington Post critic Tom Shales was not alone in noticing how, as a purely commercial network, the MTV zeitgeist celebrated "conspicuous consumption nonstop." "Words and phrases like 'commercialize,' 'selling out' and 'the establishment' seem irrelevant in the context of an MTV culture," he wrote in 1985.
The videos' use of rock music, quick cuts, hand-held cameras, art-film techniques, and outrageous visuals also appealed to advertisers. By harnessing the rock culture visually, these techniques gave products a youthful patina and sensibility-equally sought-after attributes in a culture that worships adolescence. If advertising could become indistinguishable from programming (as it often did on MTV), it could also help eliminate the new problem of "zapping"-viewer manipulation of remote-control devices which allowed those viewers to switch away from commercials and over to other networks.
The style of MTV also elevated feeling and sensation over thought-one reason why rock critic Greil Marcus would label the process "semiotic pomography." "The art of montage has changed both the way we look at things and the way we hear things," MTV host Kurt Loder once told a reporter. "You can deliver pure sensation and dispense with narrative." In that world of "pure sensation," advertisers wield more-than-average persuasive power, since if consumers actually think about whether they need another product, the game is lost. It recalls what Pittman once told a writer about his channel. "The strongest appeal you make is emotional," he said. "MTV fits in with all of this because music deals with mood, not continuity or plot."
By 1984, political observers were already noting how commercials for Ronald Reagan's reelection were "short on story and substantive message and long on quick bursts of sight and sound stimulation." "They don't call on the viewers to think deeply, just to rock along with their images," wrote Ferrel Guillory. That sensibility, political scientist Benjamin Barber would later argue, is "not good for the kind of deliberative consensus-building and the arbitration of differences that democracy is about." To which a popular video of the time might reply, "Beat It."
In commercial television, ads are often the tail that wags the programming dog, if only so those ads won't clash with the shows. So the MTV style came to network television too, whether the masses liked it or not. In the same autumn that those Reagan ads appeared, a new show premiered on NBC: Miami Vice. Described as "MTV Cops" before the show actually had a name, Miami Vice took the traditional police show and fumed it into a kind of weekly hour-long rock video replete with musical sound track, jagged narrative, emphasis on stylized violence, and sharp visuals. "No earth tones," said creator Michael Mann, when asked what made his show distinctive. Leads Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas even exchanged the old police uniform for expensive Italian designer outfits: unstructured jackets worn over T-shirts and pleated pants. "(W)here did they get the clothes-and the boat and the Ferrari-on cop pay?" asked the literal critic John Leonard. Within months the style was being imitated on everything from other cop shows like Hollywood Beat to a new CBS news show, West 57th, which tried to merge the sensibilities of 60 Minutes and Miami Vice in a hip news show for younger viewers that one network wag labeled "yup to the minute."
As ads had followed MTV in becoming more experimental, visually appealing, and accelerated, so too did TV programming. Shows like Moonlighting tried out (and wore out) rapid-fire dialogue impossible to catch on a first viewing, and also shot several segments in black and white. From Peewee's Playhouse, a kids' show that used special effects, to Late Night With David Letterman and its camera tricks, television now seemed infused with the MTV sensibility. Longer shows with one continuous plot seemed to lose popularity too, in favor of dramas like L.A. Law-which stayed with one plot for only a few minutes before switching to another. (Compare L.A. Law to its predecessor, the detail-oriented Perry Mason.) Even a show like thirtysomething exhibited the trend to diminution of plot (try to describe in more than one sentence what happened on any single episode), relying instead on flashbacks and character development to create a feeling.
By increasing the viewer's craving for visual stimulation, MTV was also part of a process which helped create tabloid television. Hard Copy and Inside Edition-with their emphases on emotion, celebrities, and blood-and-guts reporting-were the logical culmination of an MTV-inspired approach to news. MTV also helped blur the line between programming and advertising, which led eventually to the popularity of the Home Shopping Network and "infomercials," if not to a much stronger ethic of consumption across the nation.
Because this was an age in which image would become as important as song in marketing records, MTV's emergence would also mark the triumph of simulation over reality, though that transformation had been inevitable ever since television hit the scene-as any student of the quiz scandals or the rise of the Monkees knows. It is no coincidence that our first MTV-era president, Ronald Reagan, was fond of telling audiences stories of how he had helped liberate concentration camps at the end of World War II, when his only experience with a Dachau or Treblinka was sitting in a darkened room watching movies of those events. "You believed in it because you wanted to believe it," Reagan once told a reporter who thought he had seen Reagan on the set of a movie which didn't feature him at all. "There's nothing wrong with that. I do it all the time."
Yet the problem would eventually go well beyond the entertainment industry and Reagan himself. Take the matter of "ghosting." Everyone now casually accepts the fact that most politicians and business leaders don't write their speeches, many judges don't write their opinions, and many professors have students write their research tomes. Half the books on the best-seller nonfiction list are ghost-written. Yet few people ask: Are these works real? If her "music" cannot be reproduced on stage, who is Madonna? If his lines are mostly written by joke writers, who is Letterman? Was Ronald Reagan president, or only playing the role? In an environment in which no one knows what to believe, anything is believable, just as long as you believe strongly enough.
The irony, of course, is that the MTV style was never particularly popular: This was one change in the teleculture that was not democratic. Most of the shows that aped MTV-Miami Vice, West 57th, and even Letterman's-were far more popular with the avant-garde critics in New York than they were with the masses. By the early 1990s, the real story at MTV was how the network was becoming more like the rest of television, not the other way around. The parade of videos had become, in one critic's words, "the most electrifying bore on television."
In fact, by the nineties even the seamless, programless format had been scrapped on MTV to make way for news broadcasts with Tabitha Soren, shopping shows, Beavis and Butt-Head, game shows, and soap operas. By 1995, two-thirds of MTV's prime-time programming no longer even directly concerned music, and its highest-rated shows were Road Rules, a soap, and Singled Out, a dating show. What's more, the hour-long drama show, declared dead five years earlier by all the critics who said audiences would no longer sit still because of the changes MTV had inspired, suddenly underwent a renaissance, as shows such as ER and NYPD Blue soared in the ratings. TV is tougher to change than it looks to be.
Nevertheless, as cable television grew in influence, and channel grazing became a way of life, the quick cuts and other attributes of the MTV style remained-if not as much in programming, then in the hands of viewers themselves. "What is cable TV for," New York Times columnist Russell Baker had once asked, "if you don't keep changing the channels?" The remote-control device had existed since 1955, but before there were all these choices in cable America, it didn't have a true function. As a scholar would point out, channel surfing in the nineties became "a way of making up your own mosaic of images"-a kind of nightly, self-made MTV video. "In America" Huey Long had once said, "every man a king." Now, in the post-MTV era, it's every man an auteur.
Another aspect of culture and personality is determining what parts of individual or societal behavior is a reflection of one's culture or hard wired in our brain's structure or chemistry. We have examined the debate between male and female behavior differences in past sessions. Let's examine another that appeared in the Fort Myers News Press, Friday March 13, 1998 on page A1.
Women better at finding things; men better at thinking they can
The Associated Press
Men are convinced they can find things around the house, but a new study by researchers at the University of Florida concluded that women actually are better at finding them.
In the study of gender differences in memory, men were more confident than women that they could remember where they put their car keys, pill bottles and other personal items.
But women showed greater competence in finding the objects, said psychology professor Robin West, who designed the research project with graduate student Duana Welch.
They studied 300 people in the Gainesville area between the ages of 18 and 30, and 50 and 90, but they think the findings apply to all ages.
"To say that when it comes to memory, women have more skill than confidence and men have more confidence than skill is a simplistic way to put it, but we found it to be true," said West, author of the book "Memory Fitness Over Forty."
Men may show more confidence because they are socialized to form strong self-convictions, Welch said. Women may be less confident because they are brought up to be supportive and nonthreatening.
Women may outperform men in the search because they have more experience in finding things around the house, she said.
You will be asked to pick apart this study in your questions to answer.