Wednesday, July 25
Tom Freston remembers when he lost it. It was the late 80′s, back when Poison was cool, the Stones were crusty and no one knew about Kurt Cobain or Carson Daly. Mr. Freston, the bushy-browed jefe of MTV, felt his once-firm grip upon pop music and culture begin to weaken.
“It was hard,” Mr. Freston recalled in an interview the other day. “You just have to say, ‘I’m not going to do this [job] on my musical taste. Who am I kidding ?’”
Concerned, Mr. Freston, Bob Pittman and the other savvy geezers-to-be who founded MTV opted to cede the network’s pulse-taking duties to their younger, hipper charges-none of whom could recite (as most of the geezers-to-be could) all of the lyrics to the first side of Blood on the Tracks .
It was one of the most difficult business decisions Mr. Freston, now 55, ever made. It was also among the smartest. As MTV enters its third decade on Wednesday, Aug. 1-kicking off its 20th anniversary that night with a party at the Hammerstein Ballroom headlined by crystal-shattering chanteuse Mariah Carey-it’s clear that the music network’s greatest asset has been its ability to recognize that it’s aging and shed its skin, to “periodically reinvent itself,” as Mr. Freston said.
“We have always tried to take left turns,” said MTV group president Judy McGrath, considered the music network’s day-to-day oracle. “And we have found gold in the places where people didn’t think there was anything.”
At the same time, MTV finds itself at another crossroads, one similar to the day the hair bands died, the birth of hip-hop or the collapse of grunge. After a solid run of a half-decade or so, there are indications that the high-fructose Backstreet Boys–Britney Spears era is beginning to sour, and legions of teen viewers are seeking more mature sounds. Ms. McGrath said she gets calls from colleagues pushing for “islands of quiet” on the channel. Whatever the case, the hormonal packs that Mr. Daly oversees in Times Square may soon be screaming for other idols, and MTV will be forced to readjust accordingly.
“The boy-band phenomenon was really the first stage of the [core MTV audience's] musical development, much in the same way as Frankie Avalon and those people were way back when,” Mr. Freston said. “As they get older and their lives begin to change, singer-songwriters among them-people who have something to say about issues that are a bit more serious-will begin to emerge.”
Of course, MTV’s not exactly a passive witness to this sort of change. In its two decades of sometimes explosive growth, the network has metamorphosed from a reliable cultural mirror to an aggressive bully pulpit. MTV is now so powerful that it can, in essence, dictate the tastes of its audience, from music to fashion to even language. Hundreds of performers-from Madonna to Bon Jovi to ‘N Sync-can point to early MTV airplay as critical to their respective breakthroughs, and the network’s influence on the film and television form is indisputable. MTV no longer needs to wait out pop culture; it can go out and make it itself.
Still, Ms. McGrath insists upon a “total-denial” policy of this clout: “If anyone says or thinks they have it, I would want them to leave,” she said. And Mr. Freston urged caution. While MTV can make stars and set trends, the MTV Networks chairman and chief executive said that his programmers are also instructed to seek out pop culture growing organically, away from the Viacom hive.
“I don’t think you go into it thinking you want to change the way they [the audience] want to look and the way they dress and the language that they use,” he said. “If you have that attitude, you are probably going to fail, because it never comes off as real.”
Ah yes, good ol’ vérité . MTV gave us Madonna and Michael Jackson videos, but it also prepped the world for Richard Hatch’s swinging ding-dong. The network’s predisposition toward reality was apparent early, from its hiring of approachable V.J.’s like Martha Quinn to its later, increasingly grating reliance on real-life participants in its programming. (Is there a steel-abbed knucklehead in America who hasn’t appeared on an MTV beach party?) And, of course, there was also the landmark voyeur’s holiday, The Real World , now in its 10th season and whining it up from a West Village townhouse.
“We always knew reality TV was a great thing,” Mr. Freston said. “We stumbled upon The Real World only because we tried to do a soap opera and realized we didn’t have enough money and we couldn’t pay writers …. The success of Survivor kind of blew me away-that so many people would be captivated by what basically is lowest-tech TV.”
And here, too, is one of MTV’s major contributions to the television business: an unabashed zeal for developing lots and lots of innovative yet low-budget, low-frills, essentially disposable programming. On MTV, shows come and go, some for just a few weeks, and only a handful will last more than a few seasons. Stars are cranked out like chocolate coins on a candy press-Pauly Shore! Eric Nies! Jesse Camp!-and quickly consumed and forgotten.
This has always been the nature of the MTV beast-an operation that is fast, cheap and under control. “On MTV, you have the advantage of being able to try a lot of things,” Mr. Freston said, “and if they all don’t go right, you know it ain’t the end of the world.”
Naturally, both Mr. Freston and Ms. McGrath would like to see MTV develop more permanent franchises in the vein of The Real World , the network’s longest-running current series. Mr. Freston covets the kind of success HBO has had with fare like The Sopranos (“There is nothing like a hit,” he said), but even with revenues of $3 billion last year, MTV Networkers are still unlikely to blow cash like their drunken-sailor counterparts on competing networks. After all, why spend big bucks trying to appease a fickle audience known to change its tastes week to week?
Less certain, however, is how MTV will ultimately figure into the still-settling merger between CBS and Viacom. Already the music network-as well as MTV sisters like VH1, Nickelodeon and TV Land-has been used to help promote CBS properties, most notably Survivor . That afternoon, Mr. Freston was scheduled to review some cross-promotional ideas involving MTV, CBS and TNN, the National Network (formerly the Nashville Network), another MTV Networks property.
Mr. Freston said he was fine with these discussions, and stressed that Viacom stays out of MTV’s spiky hair. “They have never told us what to wear, when to come to work, what to do,” he said.
Still, the MTV boss sounded somewhat protective when asked about deepening the network’s integration with other outlets, CBS in particular.
“It isn’t the greatest thing in the world for people to start [lumping] MTV and CBS together,” Mr. Freston said. “We’re not going to have Dan Rather on. It’s a confusing signal. We want to be more of an alternative, relevant-to-our-audience kind of network-and CBS is everything but that in most ways.
“So we are careful. There are some places where we think we can intersect and it can work in our behalf, but if it’s a negative, we just say no. And we have said no to a lot of stuff.”
Of course, not every one of MTV’s hits is suitable for broadcast promotion or partnering. To this day, the network remains a magnet for controversy and was recently pilloried for Jackass , the slapstick, don’t-try-this-at-home stunt show that has been blamed for a variety of unfortunate accidents involving young people. Senator Joseph Lieberman, among others, called for the network to yank the show.
Mr. Freston stood by Jackass , as he’d done for Tom Green and, before him, the crude, animated couch potatoes Beavis and Butt-head . “We are not going to take Jackass off the air,” he reiterated to NYTV. “We felt that no matter what you felt about the show, we felt … it was responsible and we weren’t going to be scared into taking it off and eating our words. For one, I think you lose huge credibility with the audience.”
Even in these increasingly anything-goes days, that’s a rather fearless comment from a network leader. But a little danger isn’t so bad for MTV, Mr. Freston said. “MTV really needs to be an alternative to the mainstream,” he said. “You do need to keep your image a little furrier than the other networks.”
Besides, there will always be critics of MTV. Aside from those who see fare like Jackass and wish Mr. Freston and his colleagues a life of eternal damnation, there is the lingering, legitimate grievance that MTV has strayed too far from its bread-and-butter: music-video programming. The network abandoned its video-jukebox format eons ago. Now viewers must often wait hours to see even a few clips.
But here again, Mr. Freston didn’t cave much.
“We are still about the music,” he said. “We will play music videos, and we are very conscious about trying to introduce new types of music [and] also other ways to involve musical artists besides just music videos.”
What Mr. Freston won’t do anymore, of course, is try to locate MTV’s cutting edge. He learned not to do that more than a decade ago, and he hasn’t questioned that judgment since. In fact, to prove how little he gets his own network sometimes, Mr. Freston laughingly described his initial geezer-to-be reaction upon seeing Undressed , the steamy twentysomething soap MTV launched in 1999.
“I called up Judy and said, ‘What is this? This is, like, local access! ” Mr. Freston said, roaring.
You already know the punch line. Said Mr. Freston, citing MTV’s ratings for Undressed : “It did unbelievably .”
Tonight, see what that geezer-to-be was missing. Undressed . [MTV, 20, 11:30 p.m.]
Thursday, July 26
Tonight’s installment of Behind the Music explores Huey Lewis & the News and reveals Mr. Lewis and his bandmates to be really nice, down-to-earth guys-instead of the craven, Satan-worshipping smut peddlers you always assumed them to be. [VH1, 19, 9 p.m.]
Friday, July 27
On Lifetime tonight, Why My Daughter? Why not? We’ve already knocked off the rest of your family and turned them into made-for-TV movies. [LIFE, 12, 9 p.m.]
Saturday, July 28
Tonight will be a true test of how downmarket Jeff (“The People’s Network President!”) Zucker has taken NBC as they air the still-zesty Fast Times at Ridgemont High . See what blows past NBC’s increasingly desensitized censors. Phoebe -or not Phoebe ? That is the question. [WNBC, 4, 9 p.m.]
Sunday, July 29
Tonight on HBO, Six Feet Under , the show that sophisticated people exclaim is “actually pretty good,” as if they can’t believe they stay tuned to watch something without Kim Cattrall’s bouncing bazongas in it. [HBO, 32, 9:30 p.m.]
Monday, July 30
A&E has started running Crime Story episodes lately, which means that in 10 days or less, you’ll be cornered at a lame bar by a semi-balding Ivy grad with Jameson on his breath who’ll start raving about what an “underrated” actor Dennis Farina is. [A&E, 16, 9 p.m.]
Tuesday, July 31
Hills alive! Yes, that is Julie Andrews on tonight’s creaky installment of Larry King Live . [CNN, 10, 9 p.m.]
Follow Jason Gay via RSS.