No one should be too surprised to find out that money was involved.
The following video does have language bleeped out, but there is a lot of it, and the attitude is a little abrasive. It also makes me laugh and has some truth in it, so watch if you want to:
There is a factor that was not mentioned in the video but that still played a role, relating to advertising dollars. When MTV initially launched, people watched for the novelty alone. There would be videos you loved and videos that you didn't, but it was all so new that people would tune in. There would still be some influence by demographic issues and time zones, but people tuned in. That level of fascination couldn't last.
While from one point of view every video was an ad - promoting the song, album, and band - the channel still needed advertisers. Advertisers buy in blocks, but if you don't know who is watching when, or that they don't have a motive to switch away any time a lame video comes on, it's hard to feel confident in the investment.
Programming still provided some answers to this. Some times of day would have a theme instead of random videos. That's how we get "Yo MTV Raps", "Club MTV", "Headbangers' Ball", and "120 Minutes". (I assume VH1's "Pop-Up Video" filled a similar role, though I don't remember them having a lot of shows.)
They did other shows too. I loved the game show "Remote Control", got into "The Monkees" enough to go to their reunion tour (which I doubt would have happened without MTV airing the shows), and once they started airing "Monty Python's Flying Circus", my friends and I started quoting it a lot. I never got into "The Young Ones" but it didn't bother me that it was on.
None of this was awful so far. The turning point is widely recognized as the debut of "The Real World" in 1992, launching a craze of annoying shows depicting horrible people doing stupid things (for fun, mix and match those nouns and adjectives), but which many find fascinating and they are often quite inexpensive to shoot.
Since the station was generally getting music videos free, any shooting expense for any series should have been less attractive than the free music videos, but I think there are a few factors that came into play, based on my own experience.
The truth is I had sort of already left MTV behind. In 1992 I was in college, and I could go down to the basement and probably find the right channel on one of the two communal televisions, if no one else was already watching something different, but it didn't happen that often. Then I was on my mission, and not watching any television.
I did try again, in August 1994, and it didn't appeal to me. I saw grunge and rap, and everything had kind of a nasty edge. I know the bands that I did like made music videos, but maybe I didn't have time to wait around for them. There was work, and finishing college, and always something that needed to be done.
The music changes, and what's in style changes . In the video when he says what artists they would be playing today, he is absolutely right. There was briefly a channel (I think it was a VH1 spin-off) that was playing old videos from the '80s. We did tune in and watch it for a while, but still, who has time for that? So maybe some of that nostalgia is not only for watching music videos, but for having enough free time that watching random videos is a reasonable use of time, and for being the desired demographic. Once your tastes were hot contemporary, and now they are oldies. I can sympathize with that.
Videos may still be free, but the record labels do not have the budgets that they did. That point about the phones being shown in every video, and being the reason that the video is paid for, is completely true. I can think of awkward phone placement in videos by at least two of my favorite bands, and they aren't even particularly new videos. Frankly, that's weird; shouldn't there be more than one type of product that can benefit from product placement? Why is it always phones?
Regardless, needing product placement is a budget issue, and it is one that came from people no longer buying music. Again, record companies were too slow to adapt, the amounts of money were ridiculous for what the labels actually did, and Napster was a huge missed opportunity.
I have written about that before. If I have something new to say, it will work it's way out, but for the next phase I want to focus on music videos themselves. What do they do and what can they do? Which ones work, which ones fail, and why? I have been planning on doing this since at least last June. (I have reasons to believe Frank Iero is my spirit animal, but if not, it's probably a tortoise.)
So, lots of video links coming up. For now, here are some previous posts, and the books that influenced them, and influenced this post.
Appetite for Self-Destruction: The Spectacular Crash of the Record Industry in the Digital Age, by Steve Knopper
Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang
I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, by Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum