In the film Network, newscaster Howard Beal, distraught over the impending cancellation of his show, hears a strange voice urging him to oraculate over the airwaves, to dispense nightly jeremiads on the hypocrisies of our time—a sort of script Savonarola. “Why are you telling this to me?” he asks. The voice responds, “Because you are on television, dummy.”

Some record company executives must have been listening, for, says RCA’s Steve Kahn, “I think video is going to save the record industry. We have to find new ways to sell records, and I can’t think of a better way than MTV.”

Started in 1981 by Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, MTV is essentially a rock station that you watch. Seven days a week, 24 hours a day, it transmits rock videos over 2,200 cable systems and into a whopping 19.3 million homes. (Both figures are significantly up from last year.) But though it proclaims itself Music Television, MTV has more to do with the Wall Street Journal than Rolling Stone magazine: it is one enormous ad campaign.

The videos, though costing up to $300,000, are supplied free by record companies. Kahn’s prophecy has been fulfilled: album sales are up, stockholders are happy. And with good reason. The average MTV viewer watches one hour a day during the week and an hour and a half per day on weekends.

But what, if anything, does this have to do with art? The youth market is perceived by MTV brass as so mindless and credulous as to be almost clinical. The station’s logo is very much in the style of cartoon programs. MTV executive Bob Pittman says, “You’re dealing with a culture of TV babies. What kids can’t do today is follow things that are too long. They get bored and distracted, their minds wander. If information is presented to them in tight fragments that don’t necessarily follow each other, kids can follow that.”

Without question, this is true. The audience, for the most part, is a goose-stepping Konsumerjugend with disposable income, living under a dictatorship of freedom, and waiting to be told what to do and buy. MTV tells them. “And you knew,” intones a VJ (video jockey), “the first time you heard that song that you’d like it more and more each and every time you heard it!” Advertisers have been quick to respond because, as another MTV executive, Julian Goldberg, says, “They [the videos] suck you in.”

This is also true. Compared to the banal visuals of network television, MTV is dazzling, packed with virtuoso camera work, special effects, macro closeups, stock footage, animation, multiple images, robotics, intricate choreography, and beautiful people—in short, a visual Disneyland. Occasionally there will be images of sensitivity and beauty, but these are rare and fleeting; bombardment and seduction are better descriptions. And, of necessity, the scene always leaps on to the next performer—as if to say, “Your three minutes are up, Sir.”

Robert DiMatteo of Cablevision magazine describes MTV as “a world of youth and exotic possibilities, of situations out of old Hollywood movies, of easy sex, tarnished romance, pretty girls and pretty boys, too.” The New York Times, certainly no fundamentalist paper, stated: “After all, adolescent sexual fantasies are what many rock numbers—and therefore rock videos—are all about.” The video for Hurts So Good features a writhing, chain-bound woman. Vignettes of violence and destruction abound. White Wedding by Billy Idol strays into the satanic. An astute observer can find social and political messages as well.

The industry term for cable transmission is “narrowcasting”—certainly applicable to MTV. Within the total edifice of music, rock is only a rather crowded crawlspace. “Music” television is a bit generous and self-serving, like a politician claiming to be the candidate of “compassion.” MTV limits “music” to rock, and then only certain kinds of rock, mainly white. Black musicians have accused MTV of artistic apartheid. There are now more videos by blacks, but this probably has more to do with the popularity of Michael Jackson than a desire for affirmative action by management.

Other critics of MTV have included psychologists concerned about its violent overtones. Bob Pittman’s reply that various bands are “spoofing” sadomasochism can hardly be taken seriously. One awaits a statement on MTV sexism by Christian feminists, but little criticism from anyone has been forthcoming.

Indeed, a surprisingly sycophantic media usually hostile to big business has been almost hagiographical with MTV, echoing much record-industry pillow talk (“vibrant,” “life affirming,” “breaking down barriers,” etc.). Even those Christians in whose demonology corporate America ranks high have been surprisingly docile. What would they say to a 24-hour parade of youth-targeted Nestlé or Exxon commercials?

Added to all this, MTV is television incarnate: noisy, indifferent to pain, containing all the joy of a tax audit, plotless, and too often, meaningless. Behind the gloss lies little more than hype, shiny images, and, of course, wads of money. What was long feared has come to pass: “We interrupt this commercial to bring you a commercial.”

And the kids just love it.

Mr. Billingsley contributes to numerous publications and also writes for film and stage. He lives in Southern California and is currently at work on a novel.

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