It occurred to us a few days ago, that those born after 1981, i.e. the MTV-era, probably don’t know what the cable channel’s acronym—and that of its sister channel VH1—actually stands for. Objectively speaking, if you viewed their programming for any 2 hour stretch not knowing the name of the network you were watching it’s highly unlikely the words “Music Television” would be one of your first dozen guesses. (Both MTV and VH1 do air music videos around the 3:00 AM-10:00 AM hours.) This is not just a matter of moving from music-related programming in favor of high-rating reality shows and the like. No, this goes a bit deeper: it looks as if MTV has made a conscious effort to distance itself from its own history and groundbreaking origins.
While a big fuss was made about the cable channel’s celebration of its 20th anniversary, five years later on August 1st, 2006, MTV itself only mentioned its own milestone once, and that was during their afternoon hit parade-type show, TRL. (Currently, Total Request Live is their only music-dedicated daytime programming.) They actually spent the day hyping up the current edition of The Real World. Maybe it’s a case of trading one pioneering move for another. After all, The Real World is the mother of all reality shows, spawning countless imitators and even one of the most beloved sitcoms in TV history: Friends. Sign of the times, right?
Despite the lengthy run of the Emmy award-winning Behind The Music, other similar shows such as Legends, and Bands Reunited, VH1 has followed in the reality show footsteps of its older sister, frequently rivaling MTV with its legion of celebrity-fueled shows (Flavor of Love, its biggest rated show ever; Breaking Bonaduce; Hogan Knows Best, etc.) It does make a feeble attempt at music programming with Movies That Rock—if we come across Grease one more time we’re coming down to 1515 Broadway with a paddle and rocking some butts Sister Mary Callahan-style—but not even in the same zip code as hardly enough.
Which is why we were pleasantly surprised to stumble upon and ultimately watch the broadcast premiere of The United States vs. John Lennon on VH1 this past Saturday night. And with no commercial interruption, even. Our cynical side tells us that it’s quite possible this happened because their target demo was out and about—it aired at 9 PM EST—and maybe they could get Mom and Dad to watch and order VH1 Classic from their cable provider. (In their respective video clip days, VH1 had a more ‘mature’ playlist than MTV.) But what the airing of this interesting documentary did for us—aside from teaching us further about the story itself: John Lennon’s 5-year battle against the US government to remain in New York and the surrounding circumstances—was remind us of a time when both MTV and VH1 mattered, and when music really mattered despite video allegedly killing the radio star. (For what it's worth, there’s a lot more of the latter than the former these days, by the way.) We may never see those days again. Here’s hoping we lose that bet.