This month, MTV celebrated the 20th anniversary of its on-air debut with a big party, broadcast live from New York's Hammerstein Ballroom. Among other shenanigans, a series of the channel's on-camera personnel interviewed a series of rockers, hip-hoppers and various other entertainment types about what MTV has meant to their lives. Other than learning that Method Man knows the words to a-ha's simpy, synthy 1985 hit "Take On Me," there were no great revelations. And none of the musical-success stories who took a turn at the mike were crass or witty enough to point out that MTV had affected their lives mainly by helping make them lots of money by running free commercials for their recordings day and night. You know, videos.
Of course, today's MTV doesn't play videos the way it used to. Most of the small number of Darwinistically commercial clips the channel broadcasts are shoehorned into its original programming, either in snippets as part of the after-school marketing powerhouse "Total Request Live" or as ballast for flimsy diversions like Ananda Lewis' brain-dead midday talk show "Hot Zone." If you watch in the early morning, you might catch an uninterrupted half-hour block of new videos to go with your bagel. But MTV now seems to run more shows about videos (from the behind-the-scenes of "Making the Video" to the elaborate, chuckle-headed fan wank of "Becoming") than videos themselves.
On one hand, it's a little silly to mourn the loss of videos on MTV. They are just videos, after all. On the other hand, that's what got people watching the damn thing in the first place. The good news is that there is a channel for people who miss the way MTV used to be before the rise of "TRL" and the proliferation of shows like "Celebrity Death Match." That destination on your dial is MTV2, now available to Time Warner Cable's digital-only subscribers on channel 173.
MTV launched MTV2, then called M2, on its 15th anniversary, Aug. 1, 1996. If you've never seen the distaff channel until recently, you are far from alone. MTV was able to make quick inroads with local cable providers in its earliest days thanks to a lack of other compelling programming in the still-simmering cable market and the channel's brassy, rock-star-endorsed "I want my MTV!" ad campaign. Fifteen years later, M2 debuted in the middle of the Great Cable Land Rush, as broadcasters, technology companies and venture capitalists scrambled to grab and consolidate as much as they could of the vast wedge of content squeezed into your house through that little black wire (not to mention the little black wire itself). Given already established video-heavy channels like MTV, VH1, the Box, Black Entertainment Television and Canadian channel Much Music as competition, M2 ended up as a low priority on most local providers' add lists. For much of its early existence, the new vid on the block was available mostly to satellite-dish owners.
The fledgling channel might have nose-dived had not Sumner Redstone, chief executive officer of mega-media conglomerate Viacom, opened up his wallet. In 1999, Viacom, which counts VH1, BET and MTV among its vast holdings, bought the Box from TCI Music, a division of TCI Cable. This past January, Viacom relaunched M2 as MTV2 and eventually "merged" it with the Box, meaning the latter's locally oriented pay-per-play format went out the window, and Viacom broadcast the revamped MTV2 over the Box's old channels in its old markets. Thanks to that deal, MTV2 now reaches 30 million American homes.
That's still less than half of MTV's base of 78 million U.S. households. But those 30 million homes receive something MTV viewers haven't gotten in years -- wall-to-wall music in video form. In fact, MTV2 isn't "just like old MTV;" it's worlds better. Where the original channel quickly shucked its quirky programming in favor of tightly regimented playlists focused on big commercial acts, MTV2 is quirky all the way. You can catch the latest ultra-freaky Tool clip and the video for Young MC's 1989 cheese-rap smash "Bust a Move" in one sitting. War-horses like the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" and Snoop Dogg's "Gin and Juice" hit the air alongside videos you never knew existed, such as a chaotic live clip for Van Halen's churning "Unchained." If you love British bands, MTV2 is must-see TV, playing new clips by Blur, Stereophonics, Gomez, etc. that never show up on other stateside outlets. The channel programs interesting clips by major artists that probably aren't going to fly on "TRL" (such as the toxin-dripping Nine Inch Nails video for "Deep" from the "Tomb Raider" soundtrack) and reels from potential major-artists-in-waiting like Kenna or Spoon. To be sure, there's a playlist at MTV2, and new clips in heavy rotation. But for every repeat of Puff Daddy's excessive but very funky "Bad Boy for Life," the channel spins the clip for Pete Yorn's infectious yearn-rock tune "Life on a Chain," one of 2's current enthusiasms.
Even more unusual, there is often the sense that whoever is putting the clips together takes for granted that viewers can not only handle eclectic programming, but also appreciate it. On MTV2, Trick Daddy's "I'm a Thug" backs up to Smashing Pumpkins' "Cherub Rock" with no fuss or fanfare. When the video for Alien Ant Farm's recent goofball cover of Michael Jackson's "Smooth Criminal" segues into a vintage clip of MJ himself lip-syncing the irresistible "Rock With You" in front of a trés '80s laser effect, it's hard not to smile and imagine that some MTV2 functionary somewhere is smiling with you.
MTV2 not only plays videos better than MTV, it also seems to have bought all of its progenitor's cast-offs in a salvage sale. On MTV2, "120 Minutes" still rules Sunday evenings. It's bringing back "Unplugged," with new episodes from the likes of R.E.M. and Lauryn Hill. It even has a girl-next-door, Martha Quinn manqué in "Rolling Stone" senior editor and part-time VJ Jancee Dunn.
As much as its spin-off might be an improvement, it's difficult to fault MTV for what it has become. The "M" might have dominated the original MTV logo, but TV is what the channel has always been about. The problem with the initial concept of just playing pop-music promo clips is that anyone could do it, and soon everyone was. MTV responded by building up its brand identity and developing more and more like-minded original programming that would appeal to its eternally youthful demographic.
"Our audience expects us to evolve almost hourly," MTV and MTV2 President Van Toffler told the "Christian Science Monitor" recently. "If we were to stay still and be the same way we were in 1981, we'd be dead." That the channel's evolution has led to its current proliferation of endlessly repeated self-love like "The Road Rules Casting Special" or "Kiss and Tell: 20 Years of Making Out on MTV" is a bit disheartening for more musically inclined viewers, but droves of other MTV-obsessed viewers tune it in. The number of videos MTV plays dropped 36.5 percent from 1995 to 2000, but ratings are up 50 percent over the past four years. You have to give the folks at MTV credit for that.
And you have to give the folks at MTV credit for creating MTV2 and making a sustained and expensive effort to get it out to viewers. If the new MTV turns you off, here's a new version of the old MTV format just for you. So you can get excited about watching nothing but commercials for recordings again.