Contrary to what you may have heard, media fragmentation didn't begin with the advent of the blogosphere. Neither did the attention deficit disorder we're all supposedly stricken with have its origins in Facebook or Twitter. For these things, you can blame Service Electric, the Pennsylvania communications company that launched HBO, way back in 1972. The arrival of mass-market cable marked the outbreak of a media epidemic. Viewers suddenly had dozens, then scores, then hundreds of networks to choose from. These new networks divided and then divided again, like cells, producing ever-more specialised programming along the way, a process that culminated in the launch of MTV.
MTV made its debut at midnight on August 1, 1981. The first thing viewers saw was footage of the Apollo 11 mission, set to a fast-paced drum-and-guitar riff, a clip that ended with an astronaut planting an MTV flag on the moon. This was a glib and impudent appropriation of a cherished moment in American history, a nyah-nyah to decorum and tradition, setting the tone for what was to follow. But these MTV guys were clever: the moon-landing imagery also succeeded in conveying the idea that there was something remarkable happening here, something historical. And there was, too. The channel established the music video as an art form in its own right, but it also anticipated, and possibly even engendered, many of the conventions that dominate media today.
MTV was a shifting, overlapping collage of apparently random sights and sounds, an endless loop of cleavage and clanging guitar. This sort of jittery, quick-cut delivery is bog standard now, but back then it was unprecedented. For parents, watching MTV was like staring into a strobe light while someone bashed dustbin lids together. For the younger generation, it represented a kind of alternate universe, a virtual social network before such things existed.
A minute or so into its first broadcast, immediately after the Apollo promo had concluded, the screen faded into "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles. That this clip was the first ever aired on the channel was no accident, of course - this was another clear statement of intent. MTV was, without apology, aiming to run roughshod over old media, and it didn't care who got hurt in the process.
Today, almost 30 years after it launched, the station is facing an existential threat of its own - from a medium that is every bit as brash and bull-headed as MTV was when it came on the scene. And the irony of this hasn't been lost on the likes of Paul Temporal, who in 2008 published a book titled, The Branding of MTV: Will Internet Kill the Video Star? While video stars are actually doing just fine, MTV is no longer the place to watch them. Instead, people are going to internet sites such as YouTube and Vevo. Worse yet, music label executives - who used to get calloused knees from begging to have their artists aired on MTV - have caught onto this fact. Universal Music recently threatened to pull its music videos from the station, which would mean no more Lady Gaga, no more Kanye West and no more Justin Bieber.
Or, in other words, no more MTV. The techies, not surprisingly, had a field day with this development. "It seems the labels don't even care about 'old media'," chirped a blogger on the San Francisco Chronicle site. "For Universal and its artists, being exclusively online is just fine." It's hard to say what would have galled the MTV people more: the idea that music artists no longer need it, or being lumped into the "old media" category, which is a bit like being a three-legged horse in a racing stable.
A couple of days after the Chronicle post appeared, a Variety article about the boom of the online music video industry quoted a media analyst as saying: "It's like the MTV heyday all over again" - the phrasing of which, once more, seemed to be placing the channel firmly in the has-been category. The Variety article went on to inform us that a single video on YouTube - Lady Gaga's Bad Romance - has so far generated over 257 million views. In mid-August, meanwhile, MTV's Jersey Shore - the hottest product it currently has to offer - was watched by 5.5 million viewers.
The most telling detail about the above, however, has nothing to do with viewing figures. Jersey Shore is a reality show, one of a growing number that currently air on MTV. In fact, music videos now make up only a quarter of all programming on the station, and these slots are aired mostly in the wee hours. Prime time is reserved for stuff like Teen Mom, Disaster Date and Pranked. No doubt, MTV executives will tell you the decision to switch to a reality format was based on the dynamics of the marketplace and so on. And this explanation may, it must be said, have a ring of truth to it: it's hard to imagine how MTV can compete with online video sites on their own terms. Many former fans of the station, though, insist MTV has been the architect of its own demise.
"Video Killed the Radio Star but Viacom killed MTV," wrote one online observer a few months back, referring to the station's parent company. "Viacom said they thought that having a 24-hour music video channel was boring, so they decided to create shows for the channel, and that's what killed MTV. Way to go, Viacom." "I also wish they would put the music back on and ditch the stupid reality shows," responded another disgruntled fan. "I hope they bring the good MTV back some day."
But it's by no means only the punters who feel this way. While giving an acceptance speech at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, Justin Timberlake - whose career owes as much to MTV's patronage as anyone's - implored the station to "play more **** videos!" Three years on, it's clear that nobody at MTV took much notice of this advice. You can watch Timberlake's appearance at the 2007 VMA on YouTube, by the way - along with videos by Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Justin Bieber, and The Buggles.