Pop culture's most powerful critic was taking his shot. On the Oct. 19 episode of The Simpsons, Bart walked up to the blackboard and, in his signature scrawl, covered it with the phrase, "I no longer want my MTV." Meanwhile, the MTV-Hater's Page Website offered a chat for "all those who are sick of MTV's mass of nonmusic-related programming." Even the demographically challenged Howard Stern, whose own audience is more Pat Benatar than Puff Daddy, realized he could score easy points by harping on the service's lack of videos. Yet despite the welling demand for more music on MTV, videos were the worst-rated programming on the channel. What the dilly, yo?
This fall the cable channel took a deep breath and gave Bart what he wanted. Quick cuts, vapid veejays, silly game shows, Singled Out, the beach house--gone. In their place, the channel refocused its programming on music and news; showcased interviews with musicians broadcast live from a studio overlooking Times Square; and hired a new cast of serious, rock-minded jocks. To oversee the changes, it brought in Brian Graden, 34, the former Fox executive who commissioned the famously crude Christmas cartoon that became Comedy Central's hit, South Park. "There's more value on talent and substance now," says Graden. "The age of Madonna is over."
The shiny symbol of the new era is veejay Matt Pinfield, a bald, overweight, 34-year-old ex-radio station manager and Uncle Fester lookalike whom the Tiger Beat editors consistently overlook. Pinfield, though, knows music; his long-running alternative-rock show, 120 Minutes, had a ring of authenticity that veejays like Simon Rex, hottie though he may be, just couldn't deliver. Pinfield plays host on several shows that cross a range of musical genres, something MTV is able to do now that pop is resurfacing and breaking down the old barriers. "Our audience is smarter than people give them credit for," he says, leaning forward in his cubicle of a dressing room, all psyched up for a live segment where he's quizzed on rock trivia. "I'd always hoped it wasn't about the looks thing."
Judy McGrath, MTV's 45-year-old president, who has been at the station since it was founded in 1981, promises even more music and less talk over the next year. "We were constantly showing Real World so you were always seeing Puck pick his nose," she says. "We got rid of that." Even at the expense of losing ratings points. "We're not playing to win the ratings game," says McGrath. "Our value is in the checking-outness," which is MTV speak for the channel's role as the pre-eminent cultural barometer. Some of her bravado may stem from the fact that the network's ad revenues keep going up despite flat ratings, as advertisers queue to reach younger viewers.