WHAT MOST television viewers in the metropolitan area can't get right now they may soon be unable to escape. It's a musical revolution that has already effected a major transformation in the music itself. Oh, the revolution will be televised--eventually, and one city at a time.
We're talking about the biggest thing to hit television since color, the biggest thing to hit music since stereo. It's video music, mostly rock 'n' roll, FM radio with a picture. It's an '80s twist on the Coming of the Talkies, and it's sweeping the nation like a dance sensation.
Although more than 200 clubs across the country play videos on a regular basis, the revolution's most consistent exposure is still tied to the umbilical cord of cable television via industry leader "MTV" (Music Television). There are also several programs on USA Cable ("Night Flight," "Hot Spots" and "1990," with journalist Lisa Robinson as an incipient Rona Barrett) and HBO (home of "Video Jukebox" and a new Cinemax show called "Album Flash," whose Sept. 13 debut touts "Linda Ronstadt premiering videos from her new album"). Even Ted Turner is in the act, with a mishmash known as "Night Tracks."
Unless you're lucky enough to live in a suburb that's already wired or you own a satellite dish, chances are that MTV and its comrades are more myths than hits.
But, just as MTV celebrates its second anniversary, the major networks are entering the picture. Recently, NBC decided rock videos looked like a better bet for late-night television than comedy; it slipped the 90-minute "Friday Night Videos" ("FNV") in the canceled "SCTV" 12:30 a.m. slot, and came up with the network's biggest ratings for that time period since 1977.
Locally, Channel 5 has picked up the syndicated "FM-TV," while Channel 9 has kicked in with the locally produced "Music Video Connection" mixing national videos and local radio jocks from WKYS as instant vee-jays. Since nothing breeds imitation like excess, we soon may be seeing similar gluts around the dial, particularly on weekends.
Unfortunately, opportunity doesn't rock just once. Too much of what you see is what you've already seen. As the audience gets bigger, the lowest common denominator broadens, and what was once original and fresh is reduced to formula. Flushed with its own success, MTV is in danger of becoming as conservative and unimaginative as Top-40 radio.
There are hit videos (Michael Jackson's "Beat It" and "Billie Jean," Duran Duran's "Rio" and "Hungry Like the Wolf") and hit repertoires (David Bowie, Devo, Madness, Yello), and there is no way to escape them on MTV, which, despite the most extensive library and the most air time in the industry, tends to stay with proven product. And "FNV" is hardly more than the "Best of MTV," with a few new wrinkles made possible by the fact that it reaches a huge audience and is actually paying for videos (up to $3,000 for a "world premiere" from well-known artists)--which up to now have been little more than free commercials for records.
In short, it appears that these programs are repeating the same mistakes--conservative programming and unimaginative production--that made most radio unlistenable and most televised rock unwatchable. There's also an inherent irony: though some of the most creative minds in film and video are involved in this rock revolution, the name of the game is promotion--selling albums. In the battle between art and commerce, art is bound to be the underdog, and we're just lucky that the format's novelty so far has escaped the restraints of success. So far.
It's surprising that it has taken this long for the two most pervasive and most consistantly maligned vehicles of popular culture to meet in a mutually beneficial way. Since the mid-'50s, both television and rock have been the dominant visual and audio media, but they've traditionally kept each other at arm's length. In the past, you had the staid but danceable terrain of "American Bandstand" and its offspring ("Shindig," "Hullabaloo" and "Soul Train") and the concert-style perch of the late-and-not-particularly-lamented "Midnight Special," "Rock Concert" and the current "Rock and Roll Tonite." But most of these network shows were relegated to late-night or early-morning obscurity and even simulcasts on FM radio couldn't keep the excitement of big-time concerts from getting lost on the small screen.
Enter, at about the same propititous moment in the late '70s, two characters in search of a ploy.
Character One is the brave new world of cable television--alternative, narrowly focused and open to suggestion. As cable proliferated everywhere but in Washington, something was needed to fill up air-time, at first for the breaks between scrapped-together programs and eventually programming for whole channels.
Character Two--call it the mini-movie, the video clip, the visual song--was busy being birthed in England and America. Torn between abstract and literal imagery, and noted for its high technical quality, it was a new art form rooted in Beatles shenanigans and Monkees business. But it was made accessible and feasible by the evolving video technology and the enthusiasm of young, innovative filmmakers.
The rock video revolution fought its first skirmishes in nightclubs, but the name of the game has always been numbers--attracting big audiences and big money. Hence the shotgun marriage with cable. As a recent ad for MTV stated it, "Veni, Video, Vici," or, very loosely translated, "You came, they saw, we prospered." Indeed, they did.
MTV's timing couldn't have been better: It reached a generation nurtured on television and rock, but bored by radio. Ironically, the conservatism that stifled creativity on radio has every chance of resurfacing on MTV as its success overshadows its original intentions. Even though it is far and away the industry leader, MTV reportedly has lost nearly $30 million in its two years of operation. Now, having been credited as the miracle cure for the ailing record industry, MTV is seeing its formula broken down and regurgitated on both the network and cable level just as it's beginning to attract major advertisers.
No one is doing rock video as well or as extensively as MTV, but there are built-in dangers already evident on the air. When it was scrambling to fill air time, MTV took a lot of chances. There simply weren't enough rock videos available and so MTV was open to new and untested groups, who were in turn looking for a way to get around the constrictions of radio play lists and formats. Older, established groups, safe with their lock on radio, were still wedded to the concert stage as the most viable method of breaking and maintaining records and careers.
But then along came cable and MTV, and for $20,000 to $200,000 (that's how much it cost to produce David Bowie's "Let's Dance"), bands could reach millions of potential fans and record buyers without the wear and tear of touring. Sure, it was just for three to four minutes at a time, but that's how radio used to work before settling into its homogenous blandness.
There are still major weaknesses in rock video. Black music is shamefully underrepresented, though no more so than on radio. The first two "FNVs" each have one black clip. In one recent week, of 16 new videos added to MTV's play list, none was by a black performer. In what the industry calls heavy rotation (3 to 4 plays a day), it was 0 for 13; in medium rotation, 2 of 23; in light rotation, 1 of 35.
Of course, there's no jazz or country, either. MTV makes no bones about being rock television or about its audience being overwhelmingly white and in the advertiser-preferred 14-to-25-year-old group. And there is cable programming for those other music styles (including an upcoming soul video series from the Black Entertainment Network).
Despite its limited availability in many parts of the country (you can only get it in Northern Virginia here), MTV is still the tail that wags the video dog, making MTV's crawl toward the mainstream caution all the more disturbing. Ted Turner's satellite-distributed "Night Tracks" tends to mix disparate musical styles as if the segues were designed by lottery, but at least it's taking chances. The other cable and satellite offerings are alternatives, not improvements.
The network shows are still new enough to improve. "FM-TV," which relies heavily on older clips, concert footage and vacuous interviews, is the dullest of the lot. (It also is the home of the absolutely ridiculous "FM-TV Dancers.") The show perpetuates all the most annoying habits of personality radio, with a few original wrinkles. The producers run dull information in bright script across the bottom of the screen--sometimes three or four times in a single video--with such enlightening information as "Joe Jackson's first band was called Arms and Legs."
They also impose supergraphics, play with boring optical effects, cut away before a song is finished, and generally interfere with the intent of the new videos (on Donna Summer's "She Works Hard For the Money," they kept the audio track running and cut away from the video in favor of stale gyrations of the FM-TV Dancers). One feels it's all the producers can do to keep themselves from doing voice-overs on the clips.
"FM-TV" also miscalculates by using too much concert footage, most of it with decidedly inferior sound. It tries to be everything to all people; that's why you have fatuous celebrity segments on the relationship between sports and music (all 30 people conceded there were similarities), blatant promos for youth-oriented films like "Porky's 2," fashion coverage and vapid rock interviews that make MTV's look like Playboy interviews.
The locally produced "MVC" represents a likely trend, anchoring familiar product with local personalities, in this case Candy Shannon and Jeff Leonard of WKYS. It's the video version of rip-and-read news: any station could have done it, KYS just did it first. Like its counterparts in several other urban centers, "MVC" is dance and black-audience oriented, a distinct alternative to the bleach of MTV. Of 11 videos on the show's hour-long premiere, six were by black artists. The show also benefits from being on early (8 p.m.) but neither Shannon nor Leonard seems to serve much purpose beyond promoting KYS: she's too rubbery and cute, he's too dull.
"FNV," or Friday Night at the Mini-Movies, is the tightest network show available in Washington. Like MTV, it has its gimmicks: a Battle of the Videos in which viewers call an 800 number and vote for a favorite (if that sounds like a "Saturday Night Live" rip, remember that producer Dick Ebersol does both shows). There are also World Premiere Videos, Hall of Fame Videos (that means they're old) and Where Are They Now? (that's when they're really old). Ebersol prefers conceptual videos, so his show moves along quite briskly.
There are other problems related less to the messenger (television) than to the message (videos), the most dangerous of which could be a tendency to mimic the conservative thinking first engendered by radio (Burkhart-Abrams, the powerful radio consultants, also consult Ted Turner's "Night Tracks" program). There's MTV's bland personality veejays ("FNV's" hosts are off-screen) and the program's frequent self-promotions (2 1/2 minutes out of every hour), giveaways and contests. Sounds a lot like radio, doesn't it?
Secondly, passing off news footage and concert excerpts as videos is cheating, no matter how you mask it. It's interesting to see John Lennon and Yoko Ono doing "Give Peace a Chance" in their Toronto hotel room, but don't call it what it isn't--a video.
In the meantime, television has found something to attract younger viewers, rock has found a way to break new acts, and fans are benefiting from the cheapest audio-visual entertainment around, even as record companies benefit from the cheapest and broadest form of advertising around. Despite this confluence of events, it should be remembered that the whole field is still in its embryonic stage. Imagine where rock would have been if it had been judged by its progress in 1957 instead of 1965.