MTV: A shifting focus?. The heady, controversial cable channel is starting to change its tune to draw advertisers, quell criticism

TV, the cable channel that has revolutionized popular music and jolted the sensibilities of television viewers, appears to be going through some tremors of its own. Beset by social criticism, conscious of its image as a corporation gone public, and wary of alienating its growing ranks of advertisers, MTV is in the process of becoming a new entity -- less violent, but no less sensational; more mainstream, but no less flashy. And the channel appears to be trading the sadistic images that vexed social critics and worried advertisers for still more sex.

That is the consensus of music video producers, record company executives, social commentators, and researchers interviewed by the Monitor. It is also the indication one gets from watching MTV's current telecasts.

Since its birth Aug. 1, 1981, the first all-music/video channel has grown from a feeble presence in fewer than 2 million homes to a cable force reaching more than 26 million households. During the same period, more than 200 music video programs have sprung up on other channels and networks. But more important, the popular-music business has been totally reshaped. The music video phenomenon, which MTV first brought to a wide audience, has redefined the types of performers who can take the rocket ride to stardom by putting as high a premium on an artist's visual arsenal as on his sound.

In the process, the channel has earned accolades from TV critics, video artists, and viewers for introducing the first new element of visual excitement TV viewers have experienced in a long time. As the New York Times put it: ``At every turn, the imagery and sound of music video, the first new form television has yielded in decades, is . . . echoing throughout the popular culture.''

The creative energy of MTV attracted almost immediate attention and contributed to its meteoric rise; but now, many industry figures see the channel blunting its creative edge and becoming more establishment-oriented.

``MTV is not as daring as [it] used to be,'' comments Abbey Konowitch, vice-president of video and artist development at Arista Records. ``They're becoming more mainstream, because they want to [attract and] keep advertisers.''

Mr. Konowitch is one of many industry figures who have a vested interest in seeing MTV pursue a course that would benefit their products. But other voices in, and close to, the industry echo his concerns.

MTV ``is changing, all right,'' says Tony Seideman, video-music and home-video editor of Billboard magazine. ``MTV is playing it careful. They have a vice-president of standards and practices [Michele VonFeld] now. They've never had that before. They're very conscious of their image as a public company.''

The forces driving the four-year-old cable service in this direction are diverse. They include social institutions -- such as the National Coalition on Television Violence, Women Against Pornography, and at least one representative of the United Church of Christ -- that consider MTV a dangerous commodity.

``I'm highly critical of MTV and what it's doing,'' says Randall Y. Furushima, secretary of youth education at the United Church of Christ. The channel is ``basically a visual exploitation of young people. . . . They can only enjoy it when they turn their minds off.''

Mr. Furushima, like other critics, is worried about ``the way women are depicted: stereotypical, sometimes exploitative, and violent.'' So is Arista Records' Abbey Konowitch: ``I'm really bothered about sitting with my 11-year-old son and seeing a girl in a garter belt,'' he says, adding, ``Kids do come home at 3 and flip on MTV instead of cartoons. I have no doubt about that.''

MTV regularly turns down the videos it considers too violent or salacious, and officials at the channel maintain that they have more stringent standards than the three commercial networks and PBS. While protesting that the medium is constantly considering its social responsibilities, Robert Pittman, executive vice-president and chief operating officer of MTV Networks Inc., argues that ``sex and violence'' on the medium ``are an issue for people who don't understand the music.''

Nonetheless, Billboard's Mr. Seideman observes, ``They don't want to be identified as poisoning the minds of American youth.'' One result is that the company has cut back drastically on the number of ``heavy metal'' videos -- those featuring raucous rock and violent imagery -- that it plays. (Many critics note, however, that substantial violence can be found in videos other than the ones done for heavy-metal acts.)

Like other MTV executives, Michele VonFeld maintains that the decision to limit heavy-metal videos was not inspired by any public criticism. Nor does she feel that the channel has radically altered its standards in recent months. ``On the issue of violence,'' she says, ``the thing we are most concerned about is gratuitous violence -- that we are not glorifying violence, and not showing it as a correct way to solve a problem. But you can't take violence out. In terms of sexual themes, if it's got a reason to be in the video, if it's key to the plot and shown with some intelligent regard for common standards, and it doesn't appeal to prurient interests, we don't want to overrule a sexual theme.''

MTV isn't about to abandon its rebel-leader pose or its nearly monopolistic hold on the industry it spawned, either. ``We are doing what we always do,'' says Robert Pittman, adding that the channel has always gone with ``the ebb and flow of everything.'' Currently MTV is seen each week by over 13 million viewers, roughly two-thirds of whom are between 12 and 24 years of age. Recently audience numbers are said to have been flat. The channel has more than doubled its revenues over the last year, from $26.5 million to almost $73 million. ``Increased ad sales account for a substantial portion of that increase,'' according to a company spokesman.

The power of MTV is such that whatever its executives decide to program will likely become, at least for the time being, the industry standard. ``Everybody out there in video-land is trying to get the `MTV look,' '' says one industry observer. One reason may be that most record companies, artists, and video producers believe that, if their clips do not appear on MTV, they haven't appeared. One video producer refers to MTV as ``almost an all-powerful entity in the music business.''

The channel's recent midwifing of ``the rock-wrestling connection'' -- a mingling of old-fashioned wrestling hokum and brand spanking new names, like Cyndi Lauper and Mr. T -- gave stunning evidence of its continued power in the video culture. The popularity of wrestling was already growing, when MTV capitalized on Lauper's interest in it by promoting and airing brawls between Hulk Hogan and Rowdy Roddy Piper. But the rush of media attention and coverage on network television that followed showed just how loud MTV can speak.

Now MTV seems to be reaching toward a mature audience in an effort to attract more advertisers, who are mostly interested in 18- to 49-year-old viewers. This has meant a shift in emphasis away from those videos that appealed largely to young teen-agers. MTV started a new channel aimed at adults, but so far VH-1 is still searching for an identity as well as a market, according to some observers, and MTV is still the center of attention. Because of its dominance in the youth music culture and its trickle-down influence on fashion, language, and more, the changes at MTV are being watched closely by researchers and social scientists, and especially those in the industry. ``They're taking MTV to a more -- not MOR [Middle of the Road] -- but a pop-oriented [approach],'' laments one video producer. ``They're really trying to get away from the hard-core 12- to 13-year-old rock-and-roll market.''

This change in emphasis will not mean, in the end, a marked decrease in video sensationalism on the channel, but a change in the form it takes. Violence is out, sex is still in, and may be more in than ever, observers say.

Next: Will changing the violence change MTV's basic message?

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