TV UK, 10 August

On MTV's twentieth birthday: 'It is amazing that the station has reached such heights of cultural recognition and hip respectability while being so rubbish.'

Dolan Cummings

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Here’s a wild idea. What about a TV channel that shows nothing but pop videos 24 hours a day? MTV? Forget about it.

‘I want my, I want my, I want my MTV’, squalled Sting on the Dire Straits record Money for Nothin‘ in the mid-1980s. Spitting Image turned this into ‘I want my Ovaltine’, as a dig at the already ageing rockers and their phenomenally successful brand of Adult-Oriented Rock – but it could just as easily have been a dig at MTV itself.

Effectively, MTV is one great big advert, mainly for itself. Never mind that videos themselves are adverts really – if you were snooty about that sort of thing you wouldn’t be watching. The problem is that if you switch on at random, the overwhelming odds are that you’ll get nothing but actual bona fide adverts for soft drinks, cars and panty liners.

Worst of all are the adverts for MTV. You switch on and there’s the new Sugababes video – hooray! Except that it isn’t. Two seconds later a big logo flashes across the screen and you’re watching Geri Halliwell -boo! This is MTV telling you all the videos it has shown before anybody else. Thanks, MTV, but I already have MTV – otherwise I wouldn’t be watching this ad. Now, can we get on with it already?

MTV has just celebrated its twentieth birthday, and last weekend the station surpassed even its own world-beating standards of self-indulgence with hours of footage of pop stars waxing lyrical about how MTV changed their lives. Apparently nobody who was anybody went out in the early 1980s, because they were sitting at home watching MTV for hours on end.

Even supposed pop subversives like Rage Against the Machine and Marilyn Manson were in on this neverending corporate promo. It is amazing that the station has reached such heights of cultural recognition and hip respectability while being so rubbish.

Contrary to the hype, MTV is not 24 hours of fresh and feisty pop culture. There are actually a couple of programmes that do offer almost (but not) uninterrupted new videos, but their very existence is evidence of the fact that this isn’t what MTV is about. The adverts, the goofy gameshows and phone-ins and the inane chat are what MTV is really about. Forget three-minute culture: MTV makes the Undertones look like Wagner.

So, happy birthday, MTV. I want my Sugababes.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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