MTV as Avant Garde Television

If American television had an avant-garde in the 1980s it was surely primetime television commercial production.”
Caldwell TSR 303

In 1981, a start-up television network flickered into homes across America with the words, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock `n’ roll.” As the first network to broadcast music-oriented programming 24 hours a day to a teenage/young adult market, MTV changed television, music and culture. MTV’s structure, production and content sought to destroy the boundaries of established network television; this relationship mirrors that of avant-garde film and commercial cinema in the decades prior. The similarities of these parallel relationships are investigated in order to further expand the definition of avant-garde and to identify MTV as avant-garde television, or AGTV.

What is Avant-Garde?

Before attempting to define AGTV, there must be some working definition of avant-garde as an adjective. The term is derived from a French military term meaning “front guard,” or a small troop of highly skilled soldiers that surveyed terrain ahead of a large advancing army. It was usurped by French artists in the mid-nineteenth century and came to define cultural movements that challenged the establishment. Avant-garde is now synonymous with vanguard (a position at the forefront of new developments and ideas) and experimental (based on untested ideas or techniques not yet established or finalized; involving a radically new or innovative style) [Oxford American Dictionaries], both of which exhibit a desire to complicate formal properties of the commercial medium. A relative definition of avant-garde can be derived from these definitions: it pushes the boundaries of current techniques regarding a given medium and injects alternative theories and methods. Avant-garde can be applied to any type of art form including painting, sculpture, music, film and, as this paper seeks to prove, television.

In relation to television, MTV can be considered both vanguard and experimental. In the early eighties, the network was on the cutting edge of television and its programming was based on untested ideas or techniques not yet established. The importance of music videos to avant-garde film has been extensively researched and it is often noted that MTV offered a venue for that work[1], but this paper seeks to define the format, content and production of MTV as AGTV, and will directly address how MTV changed television. I will focus on what MTV does to network television and how this can be correlated to what avant-garde film does to commercial cinema. For example, it is agreed “avant-garde incorporates multiple media and artists;” at its core, MTV combines music and television. In addition, “avant-garde is a meeting of high and low culture;” MTV brings together popular music and television, two elements of low culture, and infuses them with work from respected avant-garde artists. Through several similar correlations, I will provide evidence that MTV is AGTV[2].

“Avant-garde occurs when there is a need and urgency for change.”

Several factors come into play surrounding the inception of MTV in 1981, including the rise of cable and a dearth of music on television. The seventies were an incredible decade; as the nation changed, so did its mass media. The decade began with a massive overhaul of the premiere ratings source for television. A.C. Nielsen’s system was in place since 1938, before the popularization of the television set. This outmoded audience consisted of a fixed sample of radio 1,200 households whose boxes were simply transformed for television (Meehan – Why we don’t count 74). In 1970, the ratings giant announced that it would replace these radio homes with a younger and more urban audience, thereby changing the commodity audience and initiating a series of youthful programming. This move emphasized young urbanites interested in relevant issues.

American television settled into a medium specificity after thirty years in the cultural spotlight and began to evolve beyond the network system. Cable brought a new venue for television programming allowing for several cultural experiments, the most successful of which was the promotion of other media including film, theater and music. Although live music programming was often sampled from radio broadcasts, music television, or television produced exclusively to promote musical acts, flourished through most of television’s history. The Ed Sullivan Show began its run in 1948 as Toast of the Town and, during its 23 years, featured some of the most prominent artists on the pop charts. The seventies also experienced a surge in variety programming which offered a venue for musical artists while American Bandstand (1957-1987 ABC), hosted by Dick Clark, and Soul Train (1971-), hosted by Don Cornelius, defined music television, however both hosts were significantly older than their target audience. All of these classic shows spotlighted artists, but were only on for an hour daily or weekly. There were a few late-night live music shows like The Midnight Special (1973), but there was no stable outlet for new artists.

MTV rose as an outlet in the late seventies due to the need for new television and music. Corporate rock dominated American music and most radio stations refused to play new artists despite changes in music: disco was at its peak and punk was just beginning. Music clips, usually short films of live performances, were becoming popular in Europe near the end of the decade, fueled by bands like Pink Floyd and Duran Duran. American recording labels also produced clips that were sent overseas to promote their artists. There was no consideration of using the clips domestically. In 1977, ex-Monkee Michael Nesmith created a concept-oriented music clip to promote his song “Rio.” He was one of the first American artists to use video as a medium thereby pioneering the “music video.” This medium allowed new genres including punk and new age (and eventually hip-hop) to promote their music independent of radio stations.

Just as Avant-garde film proliferated with the advent of television, MTV capitalized on the extended broadcast range that cable television enabled. Cable television, invented decades earlier, broke the three-network system wide open in the late seventies. HBO, the first specialty channel, was established by 1972, reaching homes in New York and Pennsylvania through fourteen different service providers thus allowing viewers access to otherwise private programming including sports events and uncensored films. Cable officially changed the media landscape in eighties with the introduction of Nickelodeon (1979), CNN (1980) and MTV (1981).

“Avant-garde is self reflexive.”

Avant-garde is “always eager to comment on its own processes” (Kaplan 23) and the history of television offered a solid foundation for MTV creators. They were aware of television and its components including its structure and established format, as well as genre and narrative conventions. This self-reflexive knowledge was applied to the network’s development and aided in creating its position in American culture, media, and television. Avant-garde is a descriptive term that applies to any art that breaks with prior structures but, in order to achieve this, those structures must be evident to the artists and the audience. This then begs the question, what are the established structures of television and how does MTV play on these structures[3]?

Television is unique in its ability to broadcast audio-visual images into the home 24 hours a day. This trait differentiates television structurally from other mass media (e.g. radio, film, newspapers). MTV uses this component to create a different network with a different relationship to its viewers; its programming is intended to infiltrate the viewers’ sensibilities in a very private domestic space. The network originally offered programming filled with promotional video clips by popular artists, interviews, concert information and vee-jay banter, which would come to define the network as young adult programming. MTV played with this domestic broadcast and offered its viewers a VIP pass to the hippest happenings in youth culture. American youth could tune in to the hippest party on television, available 24-hours a day.

“Avant-garde seeks to destroy commercial cinema.”

According to David James, “Avant-garde film movements have… been hostile to the institutions that make up its cinema” (207). MTV entered the television arena with the intention to drastically overturn the current television format and structure. Although the structure of television is based in its 24-hour domestic broadcast, the format of is quite different; this entails how television is presented to the viewer and differs from culture to culture. MTV destroyed the network format; it broke down barriers between programming and commercials and eliminated narrative from its overall programming. It also altered its production to appeal to its target demographic. Its style was deliberately unrehearsed, an experienced naiveté embodied by their vee-jays.

American network television consists of half hour blocks, divided into three segments with two commercial breaks. This presentation format affected the narrative structure of television, promoting a three-act structure with definitive peaks of narrative excitement leading up to each commercial break. MTV eliminated any narrative from its overall programming, instead choosing to broadcast content that had no definitive beginning, middle, or end.

By breaking down the narrative structure, MTV also destroyed the commercial structure of network television. It is often said that programming simply fills the space between commercials. Even in the early days of television when specific products sponsored programs, there was a distinct difference between the narrative content and the commercial, most likely due in part to a lack of awareness regarding the medium’s specificity and ability to integrate these messages. MTV was aware of its place as a commercial venue; its primary intent was to sell the music. This expanded to sell the culture around the music: clothing shoes, accessories, fads and more. MTV unleashed the true marketing power of television by fully integrating program and commercial content. In the early eighties, during the era of Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, there was a rush on stores as girls bought lace gloves, black corsets and frilled socks. The network earned its title as a culture producer; it both created and sold the trends while diverting attention away from its products and foregrounding music as the ideology of the network. “MTV’s greatest achievement has been to coax rock and roll into the video area where you can’t distinguish between entertainment and the sales pitch” (Kaplan 17).

The network also took the recent phenomenon of the commodity audience one step further. Instead of simply creating programs to appeal to a specific demographic, MTV dedicated all of its time to the elusive 18-24s. Demographic niche programming was relatively new; Nickelodeon launched in 1979 as the first network for children and the Cable News Network (CNN) launched on July 1, 1980. These specialized networks took advantage of the expanded broadcast and catered to a specific audience thereby changing the landscape of television. Over the years, the three major networks (CBS, NBC and ABC) fluctuated in their ‘personalities,’ based on their prominent primetime programming. At the end of the sixties, an NBC executive labeled CBS “Rube Television” because of shows like Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee Haw. CBS answered by becoming the most socially relevant network in the early seventies with All in the Family and The Mary Tyler Moore Show. However, these labels came from two nights of programming every week. MTV offered teenage television 24-hour venue and brought the raw youthful energy of its audience to its programming and production.

MTV did not want to look like the standard television network with suits and talking heads reciting endless lines of text. Instead, it aimed at a younger audience; sets and lighting flourished under a small budget, and the majority of dialogue on the show was improvised. MTV coined the term “vee-jays,” a spoof of the radio dee-jay (disc jockey). The original video jockeys (Alan Hunter, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, J.J. Jackson) were five amicable, non-threatening, young people (except for J.J. Jackson who was a recognized soul musician in the late sixties, he was thirty in 1981). Vee-jays introduced the upcoming music clips, informed viewers of music news and concert information, and conducted interviews with popular artists. Their images were carefully chosen through extensive research and sampling, and they were hired based on their marketing potential. Critics chastised MTV officials for disregarding their musical knowledge or professional skills in the audition process. They were unrehearsed, raw and inexperienced. This untamed youthful energy gave MTV much of its trademark attitude.

These onscreen personalities altered the way viewers interacted with the television and played with ideas of television and the gaze. Television was designed to disrupt the domestic flow and seize the audience’s attention. With a zap of the remote, a larger than life presence entered the home and demanded that the viewer become involved with the onscreen content. “The supposedly informal, easy, and relaxed style of the vee-jays was intended to conjure up the natural ambience of teenagers gathered in a room to listen to music with their peers (Kaplan 19). This personal relationship between television personality and viewer was attempted in 1952 with The Continental, which featured “suave, debonair, sultry-voiced Renzo Cesana… [who] would provide a romantic monologue directed to the women in the audience” (Brooks 206). This earlier attempt to play with the structure of television proved unsuccessful; the 15-minute program lasted two seasons.

MTV was one of the first channels to depend on audience interaction for their content. In October of 1981, MTV hosted its first celebrity contest entitled “One Night Stand with Journey” where one lucky viewer got to spend the night with the band Journey. The contest defined MTV as a viewer’s network: its content depended on the viewers’ preferences and involved the viewers in everyday programming. This event began a trend that continued with contests such as “A Weekend with Van Halen,” and “Bon Jovi in Your Backyard.” This specialized format attracted its target audience who demonstrated a postmodern eagerness for fame and media exposure.

“Avant-garde evades, undermines and challenges social structures.”

According to Kaplan, “Avant-garde texts… have been seen as able to embody ideology subversive of bourgeois hegemony” (40). Despite its clear position as a commercial culture factory designed by network executives, MTV embodied the rebellion in the eighties by embracing a youth-oriented rock attitude. It overturned middle class values for middle class youth who longed to rebel. Through research, MTV creators John Lack and Robert Pittman concluded the average MTV was a 23-24-year-old white affluent male living in the suburbs and the network was marketed solely to this demographic (Banks 34). Non-consumers, or those who could not afford cable, were not accounted for, nor were urban areas including New York or Los Angeles, which did not receive MTV until 1983.

1983 was a year of change for MTV. It began with a backlash against the network for eliminating black artists from its roster. Several musicians chastised the network for its blatant racism. Executives claimed that black artists did not play rock music and therefore were ineligible for broadcast, but they neglected to eliminate white artists performing rap and reggae (e.g. Blondie’s song “Rapture” aired despite Harry’s “rap”). The dam broke with CBS recording artist, Michael Jackson. It is rumored that CBS threatened to pull their other artists from MTV if the network refused to air the music video for “Billie Jean.” MTV consented and Jackson became one of the most important video artists of the MTV era.

During this time, MTV introduced its famous “I want my MTV!” campaign, featuring prominent musicians urging the public to call their cable providers and demand the network be added. Reminiscent of Peter Finch’s line in Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore,” the mantra led a massive youth movement. MTV had created and capitalized on the definitive youth rebellion of the early eighties.

Once the network became a fixture in the hearts and minds of American youth, its content expanded to include issues of importance to teens, which were often taboo in mainstream culture including sex, drugs, STDs, teen pregnancy and more. This promotion of youth culture and youth oriented concerns was decidedly avant-garde in its style and content. The definition of American youth is rebellion, and MTV encapsulated the rebellion for a generation. It became both the structure and the rebellion against the structure; it managed to market itself as the most popular act of defiance. This duplicity will reappear several times throughout its history and is essential in its characterization as AGTV.

This commercialization of rebellion reinforces another component of avant-garde film, “Avant-garde touches on important issues but does not follow through.” MTV turns activism into a trend when it is most profitable. In 1989, the MTV News division was introduced to inform its young audience about current events affecting their daily lives. Goodwin emphasizes this often forgotten component of MTV as essential to the position of MTV in the lives of American youth. He claims, “There are two MTVs. One MTV discourse is the nihilistic, pastiching, essentially pointless playfulness that is invoked in postmodern accounts of MTV. The other is responsible, socially conscious, satire and parody based, vaguely liberal – and almost invisible in academic accounts of MTV” (150). MTV News covered major issues including the AIDS crisis, the Los Angeles riots, the first and second Gulf Wars, and its most impressive political movement to date, Rock the Vote. MTV’s role as a discussion outlet is emphasized in its rare but powerful international forums. On Valentine’s Day, 2002, MTV International hosted a global discussion with Colin Powell where MTV viewers around the world were allowed ask pertinent questions of the American Secretary of State. However, MTV focuses on issues when they become profitable or too apparent to ignore. Charitable events like the Tibetan Freedom Concert become “glamorized media events” (Kaplan 152) and the message is lost in the production and editing.

This commodification becomes evident once every four years: MTV emphasizes the importance of voting in presidential elections, when it is most visible in the media and elsewhere, but disregards local elections. MTV provides the image of a good citizen, but does not commit to the necessary requirements. It prioritizes the image over the act. The speed in which MTV subsumes developing underground movements aids in the gradual elimination of genuine American youth counterculture. According to Kaplan, MTV refuses to take a secure critical position from which to speak, both ensuring their market potential and further endangering youth culture (145). “MTV is simultaneously involved in the incorporation and promotion of dissent” (Goodwin 155).

One of the most powerful items of evidence in the case for challenging social structures is MTV’s purposeful recognition of absurdity in reality. MTV’s programming is based in reality; shows revolve around American youth and their activities. In addition to twisting current events, the network also distorts reality through its produced programming, which began to dominate the network in the nineties. MTV took the pre-established genres of television including game shows, news programming, talk shows, comedies, dramas, documentaries, and even soap operas, and remade them with a distinctly MTV flair.

Remote Control (1988) initiated MTV’s turn away from music. Targeted at college-age students, this pop culture game show hosted by Ken Ober featured other up and comers like Colin Quinn (Saturday Night Live), Adam Sandler (Saturday Night Live) and Jon Stewart (The Daily Show). The success of Remote Control led into other comedy programs on the network, many of which have continued into pop culture fame including Beavis and Butthead, Daria and Jackass. MTV diversified its narrative interests and embraced teen dramas, syndicating Fox’s single season series, My So-Called Life, and developing its own dramatic programming including The Real World, which is often credited as one of the first reality programs in current history.

The Real World started off as something very different than its current iconic status. During the network’s diversification of the early nineties, MTV searched for low budget programming in a variety of genres. With the success of Dynasty and Dallas in the eighties, the late night soap opera was a market ripe for parody; however, soap operas require large budgets, something that MTV never admitted to. Instead, the producers hired seven young, hip, attractive individuals “to live in the house and have their lives recorded to find out what happens when people stop being nice, and start being real.” The program featured loveable characters with aspirations and attitudes in trendy urban locations, all for the cost the rent of a loft space and cameramen. It was a low budget soap opera, and an incredibly successful one.

The Real World is one of MTV’s longest running programs, now in its fourteenth season (NOTE: so is The Jerry Springer Show). The program embodied everything about MTV that I have outlined in the paper thus far. It utilized the 24-hour domestic space not only as a viewing venue but also as a sound stage. It originally flipped the gaze on the audience at home, and then self-reflexively turned that gaze back on itself. Suddenly, the viewer at home was no longer watching the network, nor were the vee-jays engaging the viewer; he or she was now intently watching another member of the MTV generation and hoping for a reaction, to the other residents or the camera (and the audience) itself. This alterative environment is further emphasized by the shows’ regular marathons; an audience member can spend hours in ‘the real world,’ a phenomenon that will be discussed later. The structure of the program embraced the campy nature of network: it was noticeably low budget; the camera (and the audience) became a character in the program because of its prominent position in the Real World family hierarchy. Thanks to the medium of video, producers filmed thousands of hours of footage from every angle in every room, thanks to the cheap medium of video. The program was distinctly youth oriented: it featured young Americans from all over the country with young American problems and, although many critics lambasted the program for its trivial narrative and exploitative nature, it was a hit among young adults worldwide, spawning international spin-offs on several of MTV’s international channels.

Most importantly, The Real World highlighted the absurdity of reality. It turned the camera back on the culture that MTV created a decade earlier. The first cast, Real World: New York (1992) featured players between the ages of 19-25, an age bracket who, although cognizant of a world without MTV, was heavily influenced by the network. MTV producers created a culture rife with conflict, then recorded, edited and distributed that content to continue the artificial culture. For many, learning that much of the program is scripted shatters the iconic image of The Real World as a “reality show,” however, when considered from the perspective of a low-budget soap opera, the structuring of absurd reality is essential. This begins the duplicitous analysis of MTV as both avant-garde and commercial. As the bastion of American pop culture, its actions are considered mainstream; however, as a struggling network, its search for low budget, alternative programs fosters AGTV that immediately becomes pop.

This narrative self-reflexive quality extends into MTV’s recycling of its own product. Not only did the network use the culture it created for further profit, it also began to re edit old footage to create flashback programming including MTV Video Music Awards: UNCENSORED and MTV News: Year in Rock. Like avant-garde, it both creates and draws from “a culture of appropriated images and sounds.” The network was aware of its role in recycling American content from the start; it originally depended on other artists’ music and videos for its own content. Now, twenty-five years later, it continues to draw on these cultural images, the only difference is that MTV has both created and profited from said images and their position in society.

This self-reflexive content raises issues of Deren’s social documentary. Although the network claims to present youth as they are, it actually practices a policy of “minimal intervention,” which presents “the most effective reality… in the interests of brining the authority of reality to the support and moral purpose of the film” (Deren 65). Since its inception, the network has been rife with controlled accidents; the most prevalent is MTV’s correlation with the collapse of the Berlin Wall, often alluded to as causation. The network launched MTV Europe in Germany less than 24 hours before the East Berliners were allowed access to the West. MTV was there to document the affair; young Germans stood on the wall celebrating while waving MTV flags. The network’s role in this historic affair was clearly a matter of “minimal intervention;” cameras arrived at the right place at the right time, and supplied their players with the ultimate symbol of global capitalism: the MTV logo. Despite the seemingly contrived moment, the network still heralds this event as a moment where it reached out to global youth and stood alongside them as the rebelled against the institution.

Shows like The Real World also mark a departure from MTV’s original style. Prior to 1992, MTV edited for non-narrative meaning, a characteristic of avant-garde. The programming was intended to continue endlessly throughout the day; viewers could tune in at any time to hear the latest music, see the latest fashions and catch up on all popular culture. After 1992, concurrent with its rise in “reality programming,” MTV made a significant push towards narrative editing, giving flow to seemingly day-to-day activities. This is the essence of current reality programming that creates conflict and resolutions within a half hour block. The shift to narrative is also evident in music videos of the time including the epics of Guns and Roses and Aerosmith.

At the turn of the millennium, reality television became the newest, most popular television genre in recent history. As outlined above, its low production costs and high audience appeal proved too tempting and other networks jumped on the bandwagon. Currently, MTV’s weekend roster is filled with reality programming from Real World reruns and retrospectives to Run’s House, MTV’s newest reality show featuring Reverend Run from RunDMC and his family. The latter is the latest example of MTV’s vanguard position in television, specifically within the reality genre. Before there was a Big Brother (Netherlands 1999), there was The Real World (1992); before there was American Idol (2002), there was Wanna Be a VJ? (1998). In the tradition of reality evolution, MTV initiated, and coined, the “celeb-reality” sub-genre before the proliferation of celebrity-based reality programs. In 1999 MTV introduced Diary, “an invitation into the life of an artist, narrated by the artist, directly into the camera. Viewers see the artist in their home and on the road. We are introduced to the artist as a person — untraditional and uncut” ( This new approach to reality television has revived the careers of countless celebrities including Ozzy Osbourne and Danny Bonaduce, while cementing and solidifying others such as Paris Hilton and the Williams sisters. Long before Britney and Kevin: Chaotic, MTV developed a television genre willingly employed by all celebrities for its low cost, high return product.

“Avant-garde has a visceral effect on the viewer.”

MTV’s visceral effect is twofold; it is hypnotic in its style and content. Together, these traits help MTV achieve its ultimate goal, selling captive young viewers to advertisers. The postmodern magnificence of MTV is that it both creates and sells the fad in an environment designed to subdue and entice. MTV “evokes a kind of hypnotic trance in which the spectator is suspended in a state of unsatisfied desire but forever under the illusion of imminent satisfaction through some kind of purchase” (Kaplan 12). In his 1974 book, Television, Raymond Williams claims that programming, i.e. a series of discreet shows separated by distinct intervals, has given way to flow, a scheduling technique that links programming through audience interest, trailers, and intricate editing, thereby incorporating programs (Williams 94). He outlines the three orders of flow, a programming theory designed to maintain audiences over an extended period of time: (1) the flow within an evenings programs, (2) the succession of items within a published sequence of units, and (3) the actual succession of words and images (Wiliams 97). Using these three reference points, MTV’s status as AGTV becomes evident.

The first order of Williams’ concept of flow addresses the connection of programs to cater to a certain demographic over an evening. This element is inherent in MTV’s structure as it provides one service to one audience 24 hours a day. The MTV viewer may watch the network at any hour for any length of time, regardless of the programs. The second order of flow is far more intriguing with regards to MTV.

The succession of items is essential to MTV’s broadcast day. The content and style of the programs run into one another to create a seamless environment with no beginning middle or end. The music videos influence the programs, which influence the commercials (not necessarily in that order) thereby crating a 24-hour performance, divided only by opening and closing credits (which are an amalgamation of the program, trailers for upcoming programs, and ‘third party’ commercials). “We can be ‘into’ something else before we have summoned the energy to get out of the chair, and many programs are made with this situation in mind: the grabbing of attention in the early moments; the reiterated promise of exciting things to come, if we stay” (Williams 95). This interweaving of items maintains the viewers immediate interest. “Writing for MTV is easy; most of the time it’s talking about what you’ve just seen, what you are about to see, and what you need to stay tuned to watch” (Carmel).

On a deeper level, the actual editing embraces Williams’ third order of flow: the succession of words and images. MTV subdues the consumer through a format that devoid of a beginning middle or end, and hawks its wares by packages products in a simple, yet tantalizing manner. The fast paced shot-to-shot editing creates a visceral experience that is successful in multiple markets. The combined effect is both aesthetically and psychologically pleasing and very effective to the advertising market. MTV’s role as a commercial venue was clearly established earlier; coupling this with such a powerful subconscious trope as MTV editing creates an alternative environment designed to sell products under the illusion of art.

The pop music industry produces products that are most aesthetically pleasing to the largest audience and MTV brought this trend to television. Its editing style, comprised of a rapid combination of images and elaborate audio/visual synchronization, affected an entire generation of programs, starting with Miami Vice, and continues to affect audiences due to its proven success in lulling the audience into a hypnotic trance. A common theme in avant-garde film is a disavowal of temporal elements and, to a lesser degree, causality. Works such as Un Chein Andalou, Meshes of the Afternoon, and Wavelength, play with the viewer’s sense of normal narrative by twisting the fourth dimension of time. This affects the reception of the film by tapping into an unconscious register, where time does not exist and events do not lose their intensity[4]. This MTV editing aids in infiltrating the unconscious by presenting images that do not enter the working memory. Here, the network takes cues from avant-garde structural films like T,O,U,C,H,I,N,G and Schwechater.

This embrace of psychological approaches to television introduces the concept of MTV’s alternative environment. Avant-garde film often embraces content and editing techniques that remove the viewer from reality and MTV continues this trend, even if it is for commercial ends. The combination of a 24-hour domestic broadcast and an intense psychological approach to programming helps transport the viewer out of the living room and into the homes of Ozzy Osbourne and Reverend Run, or to sunny spring break locations like Fort Lauderdale and Cancun, or even out shopping with Jessica and Ashlee Simpson. The daily schedule of MTV is filled with reality programs, often in large blocks so as not to disrupt the viewer’s suspension of disbelief. In Figure 1, blocks of The Andy Milonakis Show and Making the Band are obvious, but extended lineups of Jackass and its spin-offs, Wildboyz and Viva la Bam, also provide the viewer with a day spent in the company of these wild and crazy skater boys, instead of alone at home in bed with a bag of Doritos.

Conflicts of Avant-garde

This paper seeks to analyze the effects of avant-garde on its mainstream counterparts thereby creating a relative definition of the term. However, there are inherent conflicts in the genre of avant-garde, of which MTV is not exempt. This includes issues of the auteur, and the search for a “pure” version of the medium.

The issue of auteurship in MTV is an interesting and complex one. There are several contributors to the daily programming of the network: the artists, the video directors, the vee-jays, the television writers, producers, and the network executives[5]. This combined effort reaches the audience as one unified voice, that of the American youth, despite the minimal creative involvement of youth. Historically, music video directors remained behind the camera and out of spotlight while musicians were credited for the videos. Sinead O’Connor’s version of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is often heralded as innovative for its minimal quality in a time where videos were embracing outlandish sets, costumes and situations. However, the video is directed by John Maybury, a struggling avant-garde director who found work in the new medium of music video. Only in the past fifteen years have video directors received credit for their work and publicly developed an oeuvre worthy of note.

The music video is only one component in the overall voice of MTV; middle age television executives conceived the network’s style and content. As the network audience became diversified, white male network executives continued to dictate the program lineup and the overall tone of the channel. These executives spoke to their audience through the mouths of vee-jays, one of the network’s few direct lines of communication to the viewer. The vee-jay emerges as an anchor for the program, a face that rises above the clutter of the network and represents the viewer, an ordinary person surrounded by extraordinary, glamorous rock stars (Goodwin 140). American youth desire to emulate them, not the executives that serve as the true auteurs of the network.

A struggle of avant-garde filmmakers is to discover the elusive “pure cinema,” or the essence of a medium in order to expand that medium. Therefore, the search for an AGTV implies the search for a pure television. As mentioned above, the television’s structure is a 24-hour, audio/visual domestic broadcast, regardless of nation, culture, or emerging technology (e.g. cable, Internet). The advent of cable and the expansion of the broadcast range allowed for innovative, experimental uses of the television medium. Now, entire channels are dedicated to one specific theme: family channels, children’s channels, music, sports, home, food, and science to name a few. This new television encourages networks to utilize all of its structural components, a trend that MTV initiated by taking this structure beyond our cultural understandings and embodying an extreme form of what is inherent to television generally (Kaplan 27). The definition of television is perpetually evolving and it will require further changes in communication devices to establish a pure television.

A relative definition of avant-garde begins to emerge by analyzing its effect on commercial media and specifically, network television. However, the cultural role of avant-garde is still debatable. A key component eliminated from this discussion is the idea of independent media. For many, avant-garde is heavily incorporated into independent film, and the concept of a commercial avant-garde is repulsive. To be independent means to be “free from outside control” (American Heritage), which MTV clearly is not. It originated as an industrial concept catered to by emerging media corporations and never in its history has it been considered independent; but this is not a requirement for MTV’s title as AGTV. Rather, its commercial roots demand a deeper reading of the term avant-garde.

According to Kaplan, “The aesthetic discourse dominant in western culture from the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century has polarized the popular/realist commercial text and the ‘high art’ modernist one, making impossible a text that was at once avant-garde and popular. And yet this is what MTV apparently is” (Kaplan 40). MTV’s duplicitous nature has been alluded to and this repeated conflict culminates in its definition as AGTV. MTV situates itself as the ultimate in popular subculture; its viewers demand to know what is on the cusp of cool, and MTV must provide what is popular and what will be popular, thereby marketing its ability to both subvert commercial culture and create it simultaneously. It seeks out today’s avant-garde and uses it for tomorrow’s commercial product. Because MTV popularizes its own techniques with such speed, it both creates the structure and monopolizes the revolution against that structure. It is the commercial and the avant-garde, the institution and the revolution.

Works Cited

Brooks, T., Marsh, E. The Complete Directory to Primetime Network and Cable TV Shows: 1946-Present (7th ed.). Ballantine Books: New York, NY. 1999

Goodwin, Andrew. Dancing in the Distraction Factory: Music Television and Popular Culture. The University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN. 1992

James, David E. The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA. 2005

Kaplan, E. Ann. Rocking Around the Clock: Music Television, Postmodernism, and Consumer Culture. Methuen, Inc.: New York, NY. 1987

Meehan, Eileen. Why We Don’t Count: the Commodity Audience. In CTCS 504 READER

Oxford American Dictionary


[1] However, the fact that MTV depended on experimental artists and methods for its content in an industry wherein few shows are signed without a successful pilot begins the discussion of MTV as experimental television.

[2] E. Ann Kaplan’s book, Rocking Around the Clock, which is heavily referenced within this paper, addresses MTV’s use of avant-garde techniques in its videos and overall structure. Her analysis includes an extensive review of psychoanalytical theory that is essential to this reading but is not repeated here.

[3] I define structure as qualities inherent to television regardless of culture; alternatively, the format of television refers to the cultural norms of the medium. In America, this includes narrative, commercial format and general presentation structure. I compare this network format to the commercial format in commercial cinema.

[4] We discussed this in class but I am uncertain of its official source.

[5] One may include the sponsors as well, although it is difficult to quantify their involvement in the actual production process.

About charisselpree

The Media Made Me Crazy
This entry was posted in Advanced Work in Media Studies, Media Effects and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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