MTV: how internet killed the video star

A £255,000 fine for airing offensive language is the latest blow for a broadcaster which is struggling to hang on to its viewers in the face of the exodus to the web. Rob Sharp reports

It was a seminal moment in the history of popular culture. On 1 August 1981, MTV launched in America with the simple words: "Ladies and Gentlemen... Rock and Roll." The phrase was followed by a montage of the Apollo 11 Moon landings. While the pictures of Neil Armstrong bounding across the lunar landscape conveyed the channel's imperialistic ambitions, its first video, played seconds later, impressed its disdain of subtlety. It was Video Killed the Radio Star, by The Buggles.

And so with this unique blend of brash, rapid-fire imagery and cutting edge rock 'n' roll, the channel went on to revolutionise the way the world saw music. MTV popularised music videos at a time when people's attention spans were waning, the angry licks of its theme tune vibrating through sitting rooms worldwide. The channel first appeared in Britain in 1987, through the launch of MTV Europe. Blighty's passion for music video was thus ignited.

But it was not to last forever. On Wednesday, the channel's knuckles were rapped after MTV Networks Europe was slapped with a £255,000 fine by the media regulator Ofcom. Its crime? Airing "offensive" language which prompted a spate of viewer complaints. One singularly rude text message broadcast on an MTV channel asked the searching question: "What is a spunkbelly?" Mary Whitehouse would be spinning in her grave.

In fact, such crass gaffes are only a snapshot of MTV's hand slipping from the pulse of the global consciousness. Ofcom's reprimand accompanies a slump in popularity among viewers. The company's channels, which include MTV2 (for lovers of "alternative rock"), and MTV Base (for R'n'B fans) have haemorrhaged audiences between 2003 and this year, the biggest loss being among its core audience, the highly sought-after 16- to 24-year-old males.

What's more, its attempt to "follow the curve" with a "string of USPs [unique selling points]" is also falling on the deaf ears of those less interested in a conglomerate's bottom line than the world's best music at their fingertips. Its user-generated content channel, MTV Flux, in which the audience selected the videos, closed in February. The axe fell, again, due to poor performance after MTV tried unsuccessfully to tap into the popularity of social networking websites. The internet, it seems, is siphoning off its revenues. After the MTV generation grew up and moved on, what would have been its new recruits are logging on, rather than tuning in.

Hattie Collins, the editor of the music and lifestyle magazine RWD, says: "I think the problem with MTV at the moment is that every kind of medium is suffering. Because of the rise of YouTube and MySpace, many of the more conventional channels are trying to work out how to compete. I think maybe MTV has not yet hit on the right idea.

"I don't know if it will ever be what it was before, because I don't think it can. But you have to bear in mind that the likes of MySpace will come and go more quickly than MTV, which was a stronghold for the cutting edge for 10 to 15 years. The websites will not necessarily have such a long-term influence, although I do think MTV have got it in them to be braver and come up with new, challenging content."

It is a trend confirmed by MTV's biggest competitor. Gidon Katz, the managing director of Box TV, says: "MTV used to be the place where you would go to see new music videos. Now, nine of the top 20 hits of YouTube are music videos. [Log on to view the most popular, which include the likes of Dizzee Rascal, My Chemical Romance and Hadouken]. What's more, 70 per cent of Bebo streams are music."

He says Ofcom was allowed to chide MTV because "the internet is essentially unregulated". He continues: "Bebo can put up what they want. This means they don't have the same rights cost. They also don't have a regulator trying to constrain their activities, and as a result they can be more radical and innovative. And they can respond to user demand – a user can type in the video they want to see and it will just pop up on screen."

But MTV's troubles are about more than just the web. The channel is also having to battle with an altogether more traditional form of entrepreneurial menace: competition. When it first burst on to the scene, MTV was one of a kind; there are now almost 40 music channels in the UK. "There's a chunk of competitors," Mr Katz adds. "So you've gone from a place where MTV had one or two channels and was dominating the market to the current climate, which is obviously a little bit tougher. This isn't just limited to music television: all of the multi-channel operators are having a tough ride, because the terrestrials have fought back. ITV2 and ITV3 and More4 are all doing well, and that's where the viewing figures have gone. And you have to realise that shows such as ITV2's Britain's Got Talent is also a form of music television."

Mr Katz also says that MTV cannot compete with the terrestrials' ability to advertise their programming; ITV2, for example, can refer viewers from its flagship channel, ITV1, which reaches more people. And there is a spate of unfavourable deals being promoted by the likes of Sky, who package channels along with their satellite systems. He claims they are no longer packaging the channel in its standard offerings, which has hit them hard. Additionally, new bands might strike a deal with a mobile phone operator to get their concerts screened on telephones; in days of yore they may have gone straight to MTV.

It is all a far cry from the company in its prime. When it first started airing videos in the 1980s, the idea was to create something in the image of US Top 40 radio. Zealous, plugged in young men and women (known as VJs or video jockeys) would introduce the clips, and record companies soon realised that this was a rich promotional seam. By the mid-1980s, the company had come to embody the values of contemporary America, helped along by the videos of culturally resonant artists such as Madonna and Bruce Springsteen.

In the 1990s, the channel evolved. It proved to be a powerful platform for a new breed of video auteurs, who exploited the burgeoning acceptance of the music video as an artform. The likes of Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Hype Williams cut their teeth on pop videos before graduating to Hollywood; many of them won recognition at that other famous cash cow for the company: the high profile MTV Video Music Awards, which again expanded into non-music territory with a raft of spin-offs. The awards continued to hog headlines this week, when at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles two presenters (the actors Seth Rogen and James Franco) pretended to smoke marijuana before giving a gong.

Nowadays, despite the poor headlines and unfavourable comparisons to what it once was, MTV boasts a whole slew of programmes it has generated itself. The most famous of these include Beavis and Butthead, the "soapumentary" The Real World, Total Request Live, The Tom Green Show, MTV Cribs, Punk'd, Undressed, The Osbournes and Jackass. And it still has a presence around the world. There is MTV Latin America (launched in 1993), MTV Mandarin (1995), MTV India (1996), MTV Australia (1997), MTV Russia (1998) and MTV Japan (2001), among others.

MTV claims that, despite the overall fall in viewers, over the past year it has gone some way to reversing its decline in viewing figures, and that while MTV Flux was justifiably canned, interactive elements have been incorporated into all its channels. MTV UK's director of television, Heather Jones, says: "We are still very much part of the cutting edge. We have a host of live music events which we are behind this summer, and are bringing the Europe Music Awards to Liverpool. And I would say that online, our video streams are up.

"Yes, of course there was a time when if you wanted to see a music video you would go to MTV. Now we're very aware that you have to go online. Most critically we need to do a huge amount of research. Clearly one of the things MTV has moved towards is keeping ahead of the curve, and this is seen in part in the way MTV deals with celebrity.

"While we have a substantial commitment to music, what we have a lot more of now is entertainment content. The audience responds very well to shows like Kerry Katona: Crazy in Love and Living on the Edge. It's the evolution of the brand. Music can no longer be our only USP; that genie is out of the bottle. We've certainly played an incredibly valuable role in terms of how new talent is found, through things like Spanking New Sessions online."

While it is not at the vanguard as it once was, it seems MTV is making strong efforts to evolve. But how in touch with today's youth can a company be when it uses phrases such as "USP" and "genie out of the bottle"? If video killed the radio star, then maybe bureaucracy was what maimed MTV.

The highs and lows of MTV


MTV is launched as a music video channel with the words: "Ladies and Gentleman, rock and roll." The first video to be aired is, appropriately enough, The Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star".


MTV's PR drive steps up, with Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend and David Bowie among those who take part in an "I Want My MTV" campaign.


Michael Jackson's "Beat It"is played on the otherwise all-white channel, followed by the 14-minute video debut for "Thriller", the title track of the biggest-selling album of all time.


MTV acquires a conscience with 17 hours of Live Aid coverage.


MTV breaks away from exclusively airing videosby showing shows such as Monty Python's Flying Circus, while the network expands to Europe and Australia. A Spanish language version is unveiled.


The model and actress Jenny McCarthy launches the dating-game show Singled Out.


MTV Books is launched, including Beavis and Butt-head: This Book Sucks.


MTV UK is launched, branded from 2000 as "The Number One Music Channel".


Anatomy of a Hate Crime, an MTV docudrama, looks at the murder of Matthew Shepard, followed by 17 hours of uninterrupted rolling namesof victims of hate crimes.


MTV produces the half-time show for the Superbowl, but it is steeped in controversy after Justin Timberlake pulls off part of Janet Jackson's top, later notoriously described as asa "wardrobe malfunction". The affair reveals a deeply conservative side to Americans, a high number of whom complain. The Federal Communications Commission rules the incident "indecent" and fines CBS, then owners of MTV, $550,000.


Ofcom fines MTV £255,000 for "widespread and persistent" breaches of broadcasting regulations with "offensive" material before the watershed.

Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi during Barcelona training in August
footballPete Jenson co-ghost wrote Suarez’s autobiography and reveals how desperate he's been to return
newsMcKamey Manor says 'there is no escape until the tour is completed'
Hunted: A stag lies dead on Jura, where David Cameron holidays and has himself stalked deer
voicesThe Scotland I know is becoming a playground for the rich
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Architect Frank Gehry is regarded by many as the most important architect of the modern era
arts + entsGehry has declared that 98 per cent of modern architecture is "s**t"
Arts and Entertainment
Soul singer Sam Smith cleared up at the Mobo awards this week
newsSam Smith’s Mobo triumph is just the latest example of a trend
Laurence Easeman and Russell Brand
Fans of Dulwich Hamlet FC at their ground Champion Hill
footballFans are rejecting the £2,000 season tickets, officious stewarding, and airline-stadium sponsorship
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has refused to deny his involvement in the upcoming new Star Wars film

Britain First criticised for using actress's memory to draw attention to their 'hate-filled home page'

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Head of Business Development and Analytics - TV

competitive benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Outstanding analytic expertise is req...

Head of ad sales international - Broadcast

competitive + bonus + benefits: Sauce Recruitment: Are you the king or Queen o...

Business Development Manager Content/Subscriptions

£50k + commission: Savvy Media Ltd: Great opportunity to work for a team that ...

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £30000 per annum + uncapped: SThree: Do you feel like your sales role...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker