“I want my MTV!” It was the enduring ad slogan and post baby-boomer cry for the first-ever music television network, which made its debut on American television on August 1, 1981. Pop stars like Madonna and David Bowie, Billy Idol and Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel and Blondie cried out for their MTV as a big, iconic “M” logo kept changing colors and bouncing around in the ad. Even the Apollo II astronauts got into the ads, shown ceremoniously planting an MTV flag on the moon.
Three years into playing music videos 24/7, the MTV network had captured more than 25 percent of its target audience of teens and became the first profitable cable network. MTV had a game-changing impact on the music industry as well as on American popular culture and the whole idea of celebrity. Today, celebrating its 30th anniversary, MTV is seen in 140 countries and, branching out beyond music video into reality shows like Jersey Shore, it continues to set records.
The man who made MTV a reality was Robert Pittman, then a 27-year-old radio disc jockey who had been jacking up ratings as a “Boy Wonder” programmer and DJ in Pittsburgh and Chicago before he came to New York to work for NBC-AM. John Lack, executive vice president of Warner Satellite Entertainment, hired him for the Movie Channel, giving him his first job in television. Lack had earlier considered starting an all-music TV channel, but Pittman’s idea of using videos was the concept that made it possible, using the promotional videos the re-cord companies were beginning to put out. Like the records the companies supplied, the videos were free, so network programming expenses were minimal.
Under 30 himself, Pittman knew his under-30 audience. They had grown up with TV and they did not process information in the linear, sequential, “one thing at a time” way their parents did, as Pittman later explained in a New York Times article about “How TV Babies Learn.” They try to take in information from several different sources at once, he noted, simultaneously doing homework, talking on the phone, and watching television. Because of TV, they also understand visuals better. “They can ‘read’ a picture or understand body language at a glance,” he wrote. Teenagers wanted “irreverence, zaniness, instability, chaos, a frenetic pace, lots of disjointed thoughts, and in-depth information about the music.” The result is not only a generation gap but a communication gap, Pittman said. The media business needed a new communication technique to reach this new audience.
He set out to invent one on MTV. It was all about graphics and speed. He wanted everything viewers saw to signal “This is not your parents’ TV.” “Television was stalled on car chases and love stories,” he said. “It had hardly evolved from the stage. People had always tried to make music fit the television form. But we created a new form that was nonnarrative and nonlinear—the essence of what the music is as opposed to what television is.” Images moved rapidly, nonsequentially, juxtaposed one next to another. Logos were nontraditional and unique, giving MTV its distinctive brand and, as it happened, teaching advertisers to use some of the same techniques to reach this audience. Today, viewers have been so trained and conditioned by these techniques that both Internet and television ads can use similar high-speed, shortcut methods and get their message across. Marshall McLuhan, take note. The medium of MTV definitely became the message. Viewers even got their own name: the “MTV generation.”
Pittman became CEO of the MTV network in 1983 and turned it into a global brand, broadcasting in Europe, Australia, and Japan. He oversaw the transformation of MTV’s Nickelodeon network, once programmed just for preschoolers, into a popular format for older kids, and he launched VH-1, Nick at Night, and the initial public offering of MTV on the stock market in 1984. He was 31. Then he tried to buy out the network, unsuccessfully, and left in 1987 to start his own company, Quantum Media, and produce The Morton Downey Show, a successful talk show. Two years later, Pittman sold Quantum to Warner Communications and signed on as an adviser to CEO Steve Ross who was negotiating a merger with Time magazine and forming Time Warner.
Pittman’s career proceeded at dizzying speed. He became president and CEO of Time Warner Enterprises, the parent company’s business unit, in 1990 and the next year was made chairman and CEO of Six Flags amusement parks. Boosting park attendance from 17 million to 25 million a year, Pittman reinvigorated the parks and brought the company big profits. But after helping Time Warner sell controlling interest in Six Flags for $200 million, he was out the door in 1995, becoming CEO of Century 21 Real Estate where his legendary marketing strategies now included using the Internet.
Meanwhile, Pittman had joined the board of America Online, which was a pioneer of social media in the mid-1990s, founded by a friend from Quantum Media, Steve Case. By 1996, Pittman was president of AOL Networks. Once again, his marketing skills worked their magic as AOL membership under his guidance grew to profitably big proportions. Pittman had an uncanny ability to read the AOL audience, as he had at MTV, and worked to make using AOL as simple and easy as picking up the telephone. He was made chief operating officer of AOL in 1994 and was credited with improving its image despite technical problems and negative criticism. But once again, Pittman was out of the door two years later in 1996 to found his own company, Pilot Group LLC, a private investment company in New York City with stakes in Daily Candy and other media properties.
In November 2010, Pittman went back to the radio world, investing and becoming chairman of media and entertainment for Clear Channel Communications, the largest owner of AM and FM radio stations in the nation. He was named CEO of CC Media Holdings in 2011 and serves on the board of directors for CC Media and Clear Channel.
Pittman has received numerous awards in recognition of his success at MTV and other media worlds. He was recognized by Advertising Age in 1985 as one of “50 Who Made a Difference” and inducted into the Broadcast and Cable Hall of Fame in 1999. Pittman was also recognized as one of Life magazine’s “Five Original Thinkers of the ’80s” and named the eighth of Life magazine’s “50 Most Influential Boomers.” Pittman was also included in Time magazine’s 1984 Man-of-the-Year issue among “Seven Others Who Succeeded.” For his philanthropic work in education, he received the Bank Street College of Education President’s Award and an Honorary Doctorate, the school’s highest honor. Pittman built charitable programs into all his endeavors, including Live Aid on MTV, was chairman of the New York Shakespeare Festival, and was the chairman of the Robin Hood Foundation in New York City, which works to help the poor. When it was launched in 1981, MTV’s show began with the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” spoken by John Lack who had helped Pittman create the network. This was followed by a music video of “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggies band, a prophetic beginning. In the same way that radio disc jockeys played records in a flow of one after another, MTV stacked up the music videos in rotation and just let them go, stopping only for a plug for the network or for one of the early advertisers. The video jockey or “VJ” was born and, like the radio disc jockey, had a playlist and a few words of chatter to add. Early VJs included Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, and Mark Goodman. Viewers would turn their television sets on to the network and leave it on all day long.
The music videos from the record companies were three to five minutes long. They often featured live concert footage or showed the musicians lip synching and pantomiming the playing of their instruments and sometimes dancing. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes the MTV format,
In many cases there is also a dramatic or narrative concept, sometimes grounded in the song lyrics. The “acting” in a concept video is usually done by the musician(s), although in some cases (e.g., Crazy and other recent videos by Aerosmith) the video cuts away from the band to actors who act out a drama inspired by the lyrics. This is increasingly the case with clips previously used as sound-tracks for films. In these instances footage from the film, with the original actors, may be used. In some cases outtakes or re-shot sequences from these films are used to create a narrative link to the filmed musicians. (In these cases the video serves as an advertisement for the film as well as for the soundtrack album or the single track used in the clip.) The combination of elliptical storylines, recorded as soundtrack, lip sync, and direct address to the camera seemed so novel in the early 1980s that music video was often referred to as a new art form. The content of the new art was sometimes bold (and controversial) in its treatment of sex, violence, and other sensitive topics.
As the whole idea of music video—that “new art form”—caught on, it became apparent that MTV could easily make celebrities and stars out of the video performers, and it did, rightly or wrongly, by popular demand. For example, the British band Duran Duran was getting no traction on radio play but became an immediate hit after their videos were shown on MTV. Stars like Madonna, Bono, Sting, and others owed a great deal to MTV for making fans aware of them. Another problem was that music videos at the time did not feature any black musicians, a serious omission. The president of CBS records denounced MTV in scathing terms for this, and finally, the inclusion of Michael Jackson’s video Billie Jean on MTV in 1983 broke the color barrier and opened the door to the numerous and talented black musicians who had previously been sidelined. When Jackson died in 2009, MTV briefly returned to its music video format to play his videos in his honor.
MTV made full use of graphics, branding itself as unlike any other TV network with unusual, even avant-garde imagery, enhancing its appeal at a cultural moment when visuals were starting to take over from the words. The MTV logo, a big block letter “M” with a graffiti-like MTV on it, was created by Manhattan Design. The logo changed color and sported many patterns. There was criticism of the graphics, and MTV was accused of promoting a visual aesthetic rather than quality music and of blurring the line between entertainment and a sales pitch, as one Rolling Stone critic said.
At the same time, portable listening devices like the cassette-based Sony Walkman started coming out in the early 1980s, allowing people to be constantly plugged in to music, on the street, the subways, wherever. Followed by Apple’s now-ubiquitous iPod and the opportunity to download music from computers, there was a synergy of youth, music, and technology that changed the cultural dynamic. “For people ages 12 to 17, music is their emotional language,” Gordon Link of McCann-Erickson advertising told the New York Times in 1986. “I am not sure that other age groups necessarily are that emotionally committed to music with the same single-mindedness.” The MTV network has capitalized on its uniquely young audience in many ways, for example, successfully urging young people to get out for the vote during election years with its campaigns to Rock the Vote, using pop stars to spread the message on its programs.
Though most of its music videos can still be seen on YouTube, and VH1 continues to play music video, MTV moved on in the 1990s from its music video format to cartoons like Beavis and Butthead and reality shows like The Real World, Road Rules, and The Osbournes, along with Jersey Shore, which brought ratings bonanza in 2009. MTV is online at www.mtv.com and continues to sponsor its annual MTV Music Video Awards show, begun in 1984 (with Madonna in a wedding dress writhing on the floor singing “Like a Virgin”). MTV was in charge of the half-time show at the Super Bowl for the second time in 2004, but a “wardrobe malfunction,” which ripped off part of her jacket during the performance of Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake was deemed indecent by the Federal Communications Commission, which charged owner CBS a $550,000 fine and led briefly to an MTV censoring of its music videos. The fine was reversed in 2008.
By this time, Robert Pittman had moved well on from MTV into his own private media investment firm, Pilot LLC. He had married fashion video stylist Sandy Hill in 1979 (divorced in 1997) and is the father of three children, two with his second wife, Veronique Choa, whom he married in 1997. He was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on December 28, 1953, to a Methodist minister and his wife and still has a bit of a Mississippi drawl. He went to high school in Brookhaven, Mississippi, and attended Millsaps College in Jackson. Pittman became a disc jockey at 15 to earn money for flying lessons (he eventually did get his pilot’s license and is rated to fly helicopters and jet planes).
Though he is now chief of Clear Channel Communications, the largest radio station operator in the United States, Robert W. Pittman is still known as the father of MTV, called “one of television’s visionary change masters” by the Museum of Broadcasting Communications, giving “a new generation of viewers what they wanted—their MTV.”
“Bob Pittman.” “50 Who Made a Difference.” Advertising Age Special TV. January 7, 1985.
Kaplan, E. Ann. Rocking around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture. New York: Methuen, 1987.
Pittman, Robert W. “Counterpoint: Voices of the New Generation: How TV ‘Babies’ Learn.” The New York Times, September 30, 1990. www.nytimescom/1990/09/30/opinion/counterpoint-voices-of-the-new-generation-how-tv-babies-learn.html .
Smith, Sally Bedell. “Robert Pittman Begins a New Music Channel.” The New York Times, January 1, 1985. http://www.nytimes.com/1985/01/01/arts/robert-pittman-begins-a-new-music-channel.html?pagewanted=1
Warner, Charles. “Pittman, Robert W: U.S. Media Executive.” The Museum of Broadcast Communication. http://www.museum.tv/eotvsection.php?entrycode=pittmanrobe .