Sing a Song of Seeing

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And then there is this: that for all the new technology, and the increasing availability of video goods to the general consumer; for all the local programs, and NBC's weekly Friday Night Videos; for all the new clubs and old joints and even the Schaumburg Snuggery; for all the new ways and new places to see music videos . . . MTV is still, for this moment, the place to be. It is not just the major leagues, it is the league, almost unto itself.

Not only has the success of MTV forced radio to play a wider variety of music—to "open its playlists," as industry slang puts it—it has itself assumed both the aspect of radio and much of its influence. "MTV is the largest radio station in America," says CBS Records Vice President Frank M. Dileo.

If MTV has a driving force, it is probably Robert Pittman, 29, a former radio program director who formatted stations to fit the tastes of the listeners it had, and the listeners it wanted. He did the same thing when he started to develop MTV in mid-1980. "Where is the Woodstock generation?" Pittman asks. "They're all old and bald." Pittman, who is suited and blow-dried, went after what he called "the TV babies. The set is part of our lives, we want it to respond to our every need and desire." He corralled an ad agency that promptly recycled a famous cereal slogan of the early 1960s ("I want my Maypo!") and transformed the message into a new catch phrase, "I want my MTV!" Most important, Pittman conducted the sort of sociological surveying that turns statistical science into show-biz witch doctory, with footnotes. "MTV was the most researched channel in television history," boasts Robert Roganti, MTV's vice president in charge of ad sales.

All the research indicated to Pittman that the world—especially the young world—was ready to listen, watch and dance to rock television. "Kids around 18 use music to define their identity the way people in middle age use cars and homes," he says. "We've moved from the antimaterialism of the 1960s to the 1980s, which is material-oriented." Pittman, in essence, used music as most radio stations have done for years: as a marching band for materialism.

MTV also understood from its statistical read-outs the sort of music that its audience wanted; for the first months of its life, black musicians on MTV were about as scarce as Sunrise Sermonettes. Before Michael Jackson's Billie Jean appeared on MTV last spring, Columbia Records threatened to withdraw all its tapes from the channel. "We can't be all things to all people," insists MTV Programming Chief Les Garland. "It's not an issue of the type of music or the color of who plays it. It's programming, pure and simple." Things have loosened up. MTV now plays Prince, Eddy Grant, Clarence Clemons and Donna Summer, and only last week added four more black artists. But the situation is still less than ideal. Says Carlos de Jesus, program director at New York's WKTU-FM: "MTV says their programming is just format. But they have no equivalent competition, so there's no equivalent place for black music to go."

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