Welcome to Sights Unheard, a column by Robert Ham highlighting the best music-centric TV shows of all time. This week, we look at MTV Wannabes.
No one can nor should argue against the massive influence of MTV on the minds and bank accounts of viewers around the world. This is one of the sturdiest truisms of pop culture. Even I can safely aver that roughly 60 percent of my listening habits are a result of a song that I heard for the first time on 120 Minutes, Amp, The Cutting Edge Happy Hour or some similar left-of-center show.
But because the cable network was such a phenomenon, almost from the moment of its first broadcast in August of 1981, the larger discussion tends to gloss over the fact that it did not exist in a vacuum. Before it hit the airwaves, there were already half-hour and hour-long shows scattered around the U.S. that played these promotional clips. This includes one brought back to the world’s attention following the recent passing of its host Casey Kasem. Called America’s Top 10, this program was in syndication a full year before MTV hit the airwaves and highlighted a wider swathe of musical styles than its eventual successor.
And just like any cultural zeitgeist, the rest of the U.S. broadcasting universe wanted in on this action, spawning a gaggle of imitators that have come and gone in the still-strong wake of MTV. This included very localized efforts like Bohemia Afterdark, a show that originated in Arizona, but only caught fire after it came to my hometown of Portland and broadcast after hours on our Fox affiliate. It was a huge boon for underground music fans like me who could see clips that even 120 Minutes wouldn’t touch: Skinny Puppy, Icky Boyfriends, post-“Groove Is In the Heart” Deee-Lite, and local heroes like Dharma Bums and Anal Solvent. (For a stretch, the show blossomed into a full-on TV network in Arizona, but has since been relegated to a life on the web).
There were also some strange outcroppings, like a syndicated special called Deja View that attempted to make new music videos for songs from the ‘60s by dropping semi-famous actors into the mix. So if you ever wanted to see Harry Dean Stanton ruefully playing solitaire to the tune of Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale” or Streets of Fire star Michael Paré as a prisoner breaking out of the clink to return to his lady while The Box Tops’ “The Letter” plays in the background, you’re in luck.
Naturally, the field was dominated by the shows produced by TV networks with money and clout to burn, and not surprisingly, they were the ones that lasted the longest. In honor of its 33rd birthday this month, we are going to take a look at what I think were the three most interesting of the MTV simulations.
Like a lot of the pay cable channels of the early ‘80s, HBO first started showing music videos on the air as time-fillers. Have a long stretch between movies and don’t want to completely overwhelm your viewers with promos and trailers? Slap in a few minutes of Queen or Laura Branigan to fill up some of the space.
Months after MTV premiered, Home Box Office attempted to keep viewers tuned in to their station rather than flipping channels by introducing Video Jukebox. It was only a half-hour program that, like the single clips interspersed between airings of movies and Inside The NFL, would show up intermittently to fill time. And, frustratingly for regular viewers, the videos in the jukebox would only change every month.
What it did have was the same scattershot programming that marked MTV’s earliest days. Early episodes would feature some hits of the era—The Go-Go’s “Our Lips Are Sealed” and Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”—sitting alongside less beloved tracks like Ringo Starr’s “Stop And Smell The Roses” and Chaz Jankel’s “Questionnaire.”
Apparently, Video Jukebox actually had a bigger reach than its cable competition as HBO was in more markets than MTV. Once that shifted, though, the programming started to get even more far-flung. There were episodes dedicated to nothing but country or holiday tunes. They would wend in segments from their popular standup specials or play tunes from the ‘60s and ‘70s calling them “HBOldies.” Or they would emphasize their connection with the film industry by highlighting musical segments from movies or the songs from their soundtracks.
I’m frankly, rather surprised that Video Jukebox stuck around as long as it did, broadcasting through 1986. But with MTV already cornering the younger demographic and the recently launched VH1 grabbing the older folks, it’s little wonder that it disappeared from the schedule, occupying the dusty corners of people’s memories alongside The Hitchhiker, Not Necessarily The News, and the rest of HBO’s less-adored original programming.
The most ambitious effort to compete with MTV came from none other than Ted Turner. And not just with the program I’m about to discuss. For a very brief one-month period in 1984, the media magnate brought the Cable Music Channel to U.S. cable subscribers. The venture quickly started bleeding money and Turner cut his losses, selling the channel to MTV Networks, who then turned it into VH1.
Barring that, he could always rely on Night Tracks, a block of programming that ran from midnight to 6 a.m. every Friday and Saturday night on his thriving network TBS. Rather than expend resources on producing 12 hours of programming every week, however, they would make two three-hour blocks, air them one before the other on Friday, then switch them on Saturday.
By the time Night Tracks aired for the first time in 1983, MTV was a phenomenon. So, TBS did what they could to match the same spirit and tone of their fellow network. The difference was that MTV could get away with airing the same videos every hour, knowing they had a captive audience. Night Tracks couldn’t do the same, and instead kept the big videos of the day but interspersed them with more wide-ranging fare including country, R&B and metal. It made for some jarring juxtapositions, like sandwiching Iggy Pop between C&C Music Factory and Winger, and introduced the viewing public to acts like Hypnolovewheel and Vicious Bass.
They also aimed for a more radio-like vibe; you only ever heard the voices of the VJs giving you a Kasem-like spiel about the artists on screen.
What they couldn’t do was sit still. Even as they were successful enough to offer up big prizes to viewers like trips to see INXS play in Los Angeles, and were giving out viewer’s choice awards, they kept tweaking the formula. The producers would plop another hour of video programming before the main show. It moved from country to a rundown of the week’s bit hits and to dance tunes and hard rock before winding up with the New Alternative Express, aimed at the college radio market.
Yet at every turn, MTV had their number, with shows like Headbanger’s Ball, Yo! MTV Raps, and 120 Minutes catering to the niche markets that Night Tracks could never really capture. So, by mid-1992, with ratings down with little hope of recovery, the network pulled the plug, leaving at least one hyper-fan in a state of despair for over 20 years now.
FRIDAY NIGHT VIDEOS
To no one’s surprise, at least two of the big three networks tried to get in on the action as well. ABC did their level best for one year with a show called…wait for it…ABC Rocks.
NBC fared far better with Friday Night Videos, which arrived on the air in the summer of 1983 and carried on, surprisingly enough, until 2002.
My guess is that this show lasted in no small part because of NBC already being established as a home for late-night TV thanks to the ongoing success of Saturday Night Live. But some credit must be given to the producers wisely nabbing celebrities to guest host the show. And, well, they went for broke in this department. At any given week, you could be face-to-face with the cast of The Facts of Life, Ozzy Osbourne, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Don King with Mike Tyson, or a pre-Tonight Show Jay Leno hanging with Pat Sajak.
That went pretty well for about seven years, but again, as MTV started to get more of a market share, NBC refused to give up on the concept and fiddled with it over and over. They introduced a regular host (including, for a stretch, Tom Kenny, the future voice of Spongebob Squarepants) and would include live performances and standup segments and music news. By the time the show withered away in the early ‘00s, there was no music on it whatsoever, with the focus instead on standup comedy.
None of these shows could possibly have made the dent that MTV did in the hearts and minds of the world. How could they when they were only relegated to a short period of time once a week or less? And as I’m sure you picked up from the clips embedded above, they didn’t necessarily have the same cutting-edge cool that the big M boasted. For music hungry folks around the U.S. though, eyes and ears had to have been opened a little wider thanks to even the palest of imitators.
Robert Ham is a Portland-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.