MTV was born at 12:01 on august 1, 1981, when it broadcast the buggles’ “video killed the radio star” to 2.1 million subscribers around the country. At that time, MTV was little more than the videos it broadcast, occasionally interrupted by a video jockey commenting on the music. By the end of the year though, it was named Fortune’s product of the year. MTV had transformed pop culture from an aural to a visual medium and made it even more exciting in the process.
The inaugural video and the many that followed were perhaps forgettable, but their vehicle, MTV, has proved enduring. As of January 1994, MTV was reaching into 233 million homes in more than 75 countries. A lot of people thought MTV wouldn’t last, noted Tom Freston, chairman of MTV Networks and now we are accepted as an institutions on the TV dial.
MTV no longer finds it such a struggle to remain hip; MTV is now credited for defining what is hip.
Essential to MTV’s success has been the vision clearly articulated and followed by its managers. Early on we made a key decision that we would be the voice of young America, said Robert Pittman, MTV’s former president and CEO. We would not grow old with our audience. MTV instead accepted the reality that older viewers would grow out of MTV as newer ones grew into it, and adapted its approach accordingly. Recognizing that the appeal of MTV tended to extend only to 12 to 34 year olds, MTV Networks actually a trilogy of channels, including Nickelodeon and VH-1 as well as MTV designed a strategy to at least keep viewers in the family. Nickelodeon hooks potential MTV-viewers at an early age then MTV gets them, until they are then passed on to VH-1.
The people at MTV have been integral to maintaining this vision recognizing the importance of people to the company’s success. Pittman personally interviewed every employee in the original programming group. We were building more than just a channel; we were building a culture, asserted Pittman. I was looking for a unique blend – smarts and ignorance. We put together a group of smart, aggressive people, yet not any of them had ever done the job he or she was hired to do. Everyone was ignorant of the traditions and conventions of the job, freeing us all to do it a new way.
In hiring new employees, MTV managers have been forced to keep open minds. Margie Bynoe, former vice president of human resources at MTV Networks, understood that people’s idiosyncracies played an important role in MTV’s corporate culture and business success. Interviewers who arrived in electric ties and punk hair dos were taken as seriously as more traditional candidates. At MTV, the diversity of the workplace refers not only to race and gender, but also to an endless number of personality traits.
At MTV, youth appeal is not something artificially fabricated: MTV is young. Most of the staff is in their 20s and 30s, with the exception of Kurt Loder, co-anchor of MTV News, who is 47. A lot of the staff is of a fairly tender age, said Dong Herzong senior VP of programming and president and president of MTV Productions. So we’re in touch with the audience. Many here are, as they say, in the demographic. According to “MTV News” co-anchor Tabitha Soren, MTV is the perfect place for me … because I’m young and they’re young. And young people continue to flock to the network in search of jobs. Top graduates from all disciplines, including political science and economies from such schools as Harvard and Princeton, send resumes for jobs that pay in the neighborhood of $15,000 a year.
Creativity and a youthful attitude go hand in hand at MTV. Management encourages a “play around” atmosphere in offices that resemble college dorms, more than traditional offices, with posters and paraphernalia lining the walls. In Soren’s office, friend’s pictures occupy a metal bookcase and all sorts of concert passes, pins and buttons camouflage a bulletin board. Elvis hovers on the wall, standing guard. In the office of MTV’s vice president for news, Dave Sirulnick, a surfboard partially blocks the downtown view from his 24th floor Manhattan window. The worst thing that could happen to us, warned Judy McGrath, president/creative director, is a bunch of guys in suits sitting around in a room saying, what are those kids talking about these days? There’s little fear of that, considering the younger generation or at least younger attitude, at the helm. Even Sumner Redstone, chairman of parent company Viacom, joined in an MTV party in January 1992 held at Viva Zapata, a hot spot in Key West, Florida. The 69 year old put aside his traditionally reserved demeanor and downed tequila shots with the best of them.
Now almost 15 years young, MTV translates into much more than a video jukebox. MTV is the only place that really has as its mission to serve this audience [of young people] all day, every day, Sara Levinson, president/business director, pointed out. Still, competitors are entering the scene. In its first decade, MTV won the trust of the youth; the challenge for the network now lies in keeping it. According to Freston, “The ongoing, creative challenge for us is to stay fresh and relevant for our viewers”.