MTV has played many different roles over the decades. In the years that followed its 1981 launch, it sat at the forefront of cool; propelling new bands out of the underground and into the spotlight like a proto-Pitchfork. By the time I had entered adolescence at the dawn of the new millennium, teenage music snobs such as myself talked about MTV in the same derisory tone that Donald Trump and his swivel-eyed supporters utter the words “mainstream media” today. Those a generation older than us may have been able to remember the channel’s days as a counter-cultural force, but to us it had long ago aged into The Man.
This wasn’t its nadir, though – at least it still played music back then. By the end of the decade its staple programming consisted of lowest-common-denominator reality shows like Jersey Shore and 16 and Pregnant, sinking deep into the tar pits of low culture, where it largely still wallows today. It may be difficult to remember now, but there used to be a time when MTV wasn’t shit; in fact, it arguably had some real value. These were the glory days of the ‘90s, when the channel was bold enough to get political and imbue digestible entertainment with a social conscience.
The earliest example of this would have to be MTV News, which debuted in 1987 with its flagship program, This Week in Rock. Hosted by former Rolling Stone star writer, Kurt Loder, its focus was the sort of music news that’s so commonplace today and serves as the trading currency of sites like Noisey and FADER (in fact, so much of our contemporary media landscape is a direct descendent of MTV programming in this period).
Best remembered for being one of the first news sources to announce Kurt Cobain’s death to the world (the significance of which shouldn’t be underestimated – this was the September 11 of its time), the success of This Week in Rock helped propel more MTV News programming, the most noteworthy of which was Choose or Lose.
Originally conceived in the run-up to the 1992 presidential election, Choose or Lose was aimed at engaging young people in the political process and making them more politically informed. It did this through a number of methods that ranged from hosting town hall meetings that gave young people the opportunity to directly quiz presidential candidates themselves (a stunt that most famously led to the legendary “boxers or briefs?” question lobbed in the direction of a then-little known Bill Clinton) to breaking down opaque political jargon into terms that young voters could actually understand.
This was truly inspired and meaningful programming – young people have always been plagued by apathy and political illiteracy, a trend that tragically continues to this day (only 64% of people in the 18-24 year-old demographic voted in the recent Brexit referendum, compared to 90% of over-65s). Choose or Lose did its best to undo that.
For MTV to use its position of influence to empower democracy is supremely commendable, and I can’t think of a single youth media outlet that does the same as explicitly or as effectively as Choose or Lose did back in ‘92. Sure, the UK branch of VICE tried doing its own version of CoL last year for the 2015 General Election, but it felt like mere entertainment in comparison – content churned out to reel in clicks rather than really serve a social purpose. Also, it should be remembered that CoL helped MTV News win a prestigious Peabody Award for journalism, which is no mean feat.
Choose or Lose got results too: that election saw the highest youth vote turnout since 1972 (an election that worryingly saw Richard Nixon re-elected to the White House in a landslide victory over George McGovern. So much for youthful idealism.), although its star reporter, Tabitha Soren, recently expressed her concerns in a New York Times op-ed that she may have inadvertently helped degrade politics into the infotainment shit show that it is today.
We can never know for sure, but hey, at least MTV tried, and that’s infinitely more admirable than the spineless apoliticism that so many media outlets embrace these days, cowering at the prospect of potentially alienating viewers or advertisers.
This wasn’t a token act of social-mindedness from MTV either: The Real World, for all the evils (see: the Kardashians) it unleashed by bringing reality television into the mainstream, boldly tackled real world issues (pun intended) that were relevant to young Gen Xers at the time. Racism, homophobia, and religion were all topics tackled unflinchingly on some of the earlier seasons of the show.
In its second season, one contestant, Tami Roman, got an abortion, pissing off some of her religious housemates and forcing the issue into wider cultural discourse in the bluntest way imaginable. Another contestant on the same season, Pedro Zamora, was a young gay man living with AIDS, who died a mere day after the final episode of the season aired.
Pedro and MTV gave a human face to a disease that was horribly misunderstood back in 1993, which went some way towards destigmatizing it. It can be difficult to comprehend now, 23 years later, in the significantly more liberalized world in which we live, but this was unprecedented at the time.
But putting valiant, world-changing causes aside for a second, there were subtler things worth appreciating about '90s MTV, namely the element of subversion it brought to mainstream television audiences via MTV Animation. Cartoons were, for a long time, seen as nothing more than children’s entertainment, but MTV proved that when directed at adults they can serve as a potent form of satire, going to extremes that live acting or reporting could never reach.
Celebrity Deathmatch lampooned asinine celebrity beefs by taking them to their absurdist conclusion – what could highlight their abject pettiness more perfectly than pitting famous clay lookalikes against each other in a hyperbolic battle to the death? Daria flew the flag for the Generation X cynicism, using it to poke America’s pathological, optimistic fundamentalism in the eye. Beavis and Butthead were the ultimate slacker anti-heroes, and their teacher, David Van Driessen was a hilariously nuanced mockery of soft-touch liberal parenting.
So how did MTV become the utter toilet that it is today? Because its executives figured out how to game the system and maximize their earnings, basically. Three minute-long music videos don’t make for stable viewing figures because people switch channels as soon as a song that they don’t like comes on air. Reality TV is far more immersive: once a viewer gets reeled in by the characters or plot, they tend to stay fixated throughout the show, which is always beneficial for ad revenue.
Those in charge also got lazy: reality TV shows focused on talentless no-marks are far cheaper to produce than scripted series with proper actors like House of Cards, for example, and, for a long time, TV channels had a steady stream of income from their inclusion in cable bundles. The digitization that decimated music, film and publishing hit TV much later, only arriving recently in the form of pay-per-play financial models, slimmed-down, personalized cable bundles, and internet-streaming platforms like YouTube and Netflix. Nowadays, shitty TV has less room to hide and viewers have more options to hold channels like MTV to account.
After many years of decline, those calling the shots at the channel appear to finally be taking heed. Earlier this year it was announced that MTV News was going to get a reboot, and the channel started a hiring drive, bringing in reporters and journalists from other reputable web publications to help it compete with the likes of upstarts like VICE and Buzzfeed that have claimed the ground that Choose or Lose left behind. There’s a certain symmetry to the timing of this: with a Clinton edging towards the White House yet again, maybe MTV is due a '90s renaissance too.
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are those solely of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of Highsnobiety as a whole.