MTV are going back to their roots – or so they would have us believe. The TV network is reviving its cult cartoon show Beavis & Butt-Head after a fourteen year hiatus. Meanwhile, they’ve just launched an exciting new sister channel called – wait for it – MTV Music.
So does this mean they’ll be reducing their primary output of shallow, shrieking, youth-targeted reality TV? Er, no. Beyond this latest cosmetic rebranding, it’s clear that MTV remain committed to such dumpster-diving formats as 16 And Pregnant, Brooke Knows Best, and Totally Calum Best.
It’s a tragic tale of corporate compromise: the channel that revolutionised and re-energised music when it launched in 1981 now provides a platform for orange-skinned socialites and walks through rich people’s houses.
This stuff clearly works for them. Jersey Shore, with its cast of ridiculous bellends, received the network’s highest ever viewing figures for its third season premiere last year, and is now the station’s flagship programme. Distressingly, it’s now getting a British spin-off in the shape of Geordie Shore.
The truth is, bringing back Beavis & Butthead is too little too late - the desperate act of a once-pioneering broadcaster trying to claw back the respect of the music fans who abandoned it long ago.
Because, yes, people did once respect MTV. In fact there was a time in the ‘90s when it did a fine job of providing exposure to underground music. Beavis & Butthead played their part in that.
The rise of YouTube, with its focus on quick-fire, LOL-worthy viral clips, looks to have impacted MTV to the point where it feels it can no longer influence music culture.
It’s not as if the music video as a creative outlet has run its course - just look at Lady Gaga’s epic ‘Telephone’ – but it’s telling that most of the innovation (eg Arcade Fire’s ‘The Wilderness Downtown’) is now happening online, not on TV.
It’s not just about music videos though (we have other channels to sate our promo appetite, such as our own NME TV). What we really need are quality music shows.
MTV used to do this brilliantly. In the 80s and 90s, programmes such as 120 Minutes, Headbangers Ball and Yo! MTV Raps filled the alt-culture void left by mainstream TV.
The former gave extensive airplay to the likes of Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Husker Du at a time when they struggled to get airplay elsewhere, while Yo! took hip-hop to a worldwide audience by giving it prime-time exposure. Who else would have broadcast a clearly inebriated ODB freestylin’?
The channel’s Unplugged series coaxed performances of a mythically intimate nature from some revered artists. The Cure, Lauryn Hill and Oasis (complete with Liam heckling from the audience) all did memorable sets. The series also gave us one of the great acoustic albums: Nirvana’s ‘MTV Unplugged In New York’.
By providing a cool platform for new music, MTV set a template that has been much imitated but never matched. What passes for terrestrial music TV today – the tawdry likes of Orange Unsigned Act and Must Be The Music - are poor relations indeed.
But attempting to rehash former glories won’t help MTV win back music fans. It needs to remember how to innovate.