MTV: Bring in the Music

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Published March 26, 2009

On April 1, MTV will debut Pedro, an original movie about Pedro Zamora, the HIV-positive Real World: San Francisco housemate who 15 years ago taught a generation of MTV-watchers about living with AIDS. On the same day, the channel will look back at another part of its history, and resurrect music videos. For a few hours a day. After midnight.

When MTV decided to stop showing music videos at the beginning of 2009, it didn’t raise too many eyebrows. Since the debut of (a very different) The Real World in 1992, MTV has turned more and more of its schedule over to reality programming and original features like Pedro, leaving MTV2 and the Internet to pick up the music video slack. No one expects MTV to show videos anymore, and it’s hard to imagine that the return of videos will change the channel’s identity radically—especially as the clips will run in the wee hours of the morning, with no apparent attempt to group them by genre, or introduce them with a VJ, or do anything special that would make “music programming” in any way curatorial, or must-see TV.

It doesn’t have to be this way. When the channel launched in 1981, the limited pool of promotional clips meant that a lot of British New Wave bands received exposure they otherwise might not have gotten; and MTV’s promotion of rap and grunge in the early 90s helped break those genres wide.  If MTV wants to cram all its music videos into the godless hours of the morning, that’s fine. Teenagers and college kids are up late anyway, so that’s when a block of music videos might have the most cultural impact. But why not make an effort? Why not bring back brands like 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball or Yo! MTV Raps? Why not bring back interviews and in-studio appearances and knowledgeable hosts who can tell fans of one band that they might well like another?

MTV should consider using its tentative return to music to innovate a little—or at least take an advocacy role. Let fans of The Jonas Brothers know that they might like Bishop Allen; or turn Taylor Swift fans on to Neko Case. A smart approach to the late-late-late-night video block could break  new talent, and bring more viewers back to MTV, more buyers into record stores. Everybody wins.