If you weren’t around to watch MTV in the 1980s and ’90s, you have no idea how big it was.
“It was Spotify, YouTube, Snapchat, TikTok — all of these entities grouped into one,” said Salt Lake City filmmaker Tyler Measom, a Utah native. “Everyone in our generation has their MTV story. Everyone had this relationship with MTV. … It was, to our generation, everything.”
Directors/writers/producers Measom and Patrick Waldrop, a former Utahn, tell the story in the documentary “I Want My MTV,” which airs Tuesday on A&E as an installment of “Biography” — 7 p.m. on DirecTV and Dish; 10 p.m. on Comcast.
“A big part of what we’re trying to do is look back at my own childhood because my obsession was MTV,” said Waldrop. “Our goal was to use nostalgia as a way in — to reassess how culture has evolved since then.”
If it was fiction, the story of MTV wouldn’t be plausible. Conventional wisdom was that music didn’t work on TV, particularly at a time when cable TV was in its infancy and most cable systems wouldn’t carry it. The tagline “I want my MTV” was MTV encouraging young people to call their local cable company and demand it add the channel.
“They said, ‘This is not for your parents. MTV is for you. I want my MTV,’” Meason said. “And it became about the teenagers.”
MTV became huge — it was the first cable network that actually made money — and, in many ways, dominated not just the television landscape but America for a dozen years.
“It taught us how to dress,” Measom said. “How to talk. It taught us what was cool.”
“From about ’81 to ’93, MTV was the innovation engine in media,” Waldrop said. “It was what was changing the game. And then the internet came in and became the innovation engine.”
When it launched, MTV was all about the music videos. But there weren’t a lot of them. MTV had somewhere between 120 and 250 when it debuted on Aug. 1, 1981 — which wasn’t a lot, given that it was on the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
And most of those videos were low-budget recordings of live performances. In the documentary, REO Speedwagon lead singer Kevin Cronin recalls shooting four in a single day, adding that the “production value … was embarrassing at best.”
MTV inadvertently created a “second British invasion” of sorts because bands in England — as well as New Zealand and Australia — were producing videos, which MTV aired because it was desperate.
“So you’d get these strange bands,” Measom said. Some good, some that “frankly, didn’t have that much talent. They’d give almost anyone a shot, especially in the early years.”
But virtually all of the era’s biggest stars began making music videos for MTV. The documentary includes plenty of nostalgia — clips of videos and artists reminiscing about them, a list that includes Sting, Pat Benatar, Billy Idol, Annie Lennox, Nancy Wilson, Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, Bret Michaels and many more.
Over the next few years, music video budgets rose to the multimillions at a time when an hour of prime-time television cost maybe $1 million.
“And the record labels were happy to pay it because if you got a prime spot on MTV, you saw album sales go up exponentially,” Measom said. “It was the only national radio station, technically, at the time.”
It was radio on TV, so the channel hired VJs — the video equivalent of radio DJs — and Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, JJ Jackson and Martha Quinn quickly became the Kardashians of their time. They were famous without having any particular talent.
(Goodman and Hunter are interviewed in the documentary; Quinn and Blackwood declined interview requests; Jackson died in 2004.)
Allegations of racism and misogyny
“I Want My MTV” is not just a look back at the channel’s past through rose-colored glasses. The documentary focuses on two ongoing controversies.
MTV came under considerable criticism for its nearly all-white talent lineup.
“The MTV founders came from radio. That’s the world they knew. And the world they knew was segregated,” Measom said.
At the time, white artists were played on white radio stations; Black artists on Black stations — and that didn’t prompt protests.
“But when MTV launched, you could see it,” Measom said. “And in an age when ‘The Jeffersons’ and ‘The Cosby Show’ were on and you could see Black faces on your television, and yet you turned on MTV and there weren’t any — it definitely stood out.”
And then there were the music videos, many filled with scantily clad young women employed as nothing more than sex objects.
“We get into the racial and misogynistic issues around video culture in the ’80s,” Waldrop said. “I wasn’t aware of that as a kid. I never thought about it. So making the movie was kind of a chance to go back and reassess the social and cultural world that we grew up in.
“And yet it’s still Madonna videos and George Michael and everything.”
Making things real
MTV didn’t invent reality TV, but it certainly popularized it. It added “The Real World” — a show about seven strangers picked to live in a house and have their lives taped — in 1992, in no small part because it was cheap to produce.
“Put cameras and watch real life unfold on your TV screen,” Measom said. “And it completely changed MTV overnight. It changed the viewing culture. And in many ways, American culture.”
The Season 3 “Real World” cast included Pedro Zamora, a young gay man who was infected with HIV and died hours after the season’s final episode aired in 1994.
“Just to see a lovable, non-mockable gay man on your TV screen — I mean, there is a direct relationship between Pedro and gay marriage being legalized later because our generation grew up with that,” Measom said. “That’s what MTV could do.”
Could’ve been more
“I Want My MTV” flies by in a two-hour TV time slot, and the filmmakers would’ve liked more time. They did more than 60 interviews, and many of those lasted an hour or more, “So there is a mountain of footage,” Waldrop said. “And it would have been nice to go further into politics.”
It barely gets more than a mention, but he and Measom had originally planned a whole section on the Choose or Lose/Rock the Vote effort.
“MTV changed politics,” Measom said. “Rock the Vote in ’92, in many ways, elected Bill Clinton. And raised an entire generation of Democrats that voted for Obama decades later.”
“And if you look at our political world today,” Waldrop added, “it’s so shaped by what was happening on MTV in 1992. Now we have a reality TV president. I mean, it’s a pretty stunning parallel.”
It’s not in the documentary, but Judy McGrath — who took a job as a copywriter at MTV in 1981 and rose to become chair of MTV Networks — said she felt “horrible” on election night 2016 because she “felt like I did that because I started reality TV. I was there when we entertain-ized politics,” according to Measom. “And you combine reality TV and the infotainment of news and you get our current president, unfortunately.”
Waldrop, 39, who lived in Salt Lake City for seven years when he was in his 20s, grew up in Florida “where I was a cable-obsessed kid who watched MTV as much as possible.” But when he was 9, his family moved to a small town in Washington, and cable — thus MTV — was not available at their new home.
“The only way I could get it was paying this super Christian kid who thought MTV was wrong, but he had a satellite and would record it for me,” he said with a laugh.
(The going rate was $5 for a six-hour VHS tape of MTV.)
Measom, 48, grew up in Manila Township in Utah County — since annexed into Pleasant Grove. And, coincidentally, there was no cable there, either.
“So I’d go over to my friends’ houses, and there would be this magic coming from the TV screen,” he said. “And I do recall everybody talking about it and that it changed culture.
“So when the opportunity came to make this documentary, I realized I could make up for a misspent youth,” Measom said with a laugh.
Waldrop came up with the idea for “I Want My MTV” in 2006 when he was working at the Broadway theater in Salt Lake City. It was eight years later when he partnered with Measom and production began — they wrapped in 2018, and it premiered at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival.
MTV in Utah
MTV actually made it to Utah before many big, urban areas — because cable was strung in many Utah cities long before cities like New York, Chicago and Los Angeles were wired.
“Provo was one of the earlier places MTV launched, oddly enough,” Measom said. “And I remember there was the controversy because BYU didn’t put it in the dorms.”
MTV was banned from on-campus cable and some Brigham Young University-approved housing.
And BYU made headlines in 2000 when it suspended Kelly Stoffer, a BYU student who appeared on “The Real World,” for violating the school’s Honor Code by living in the same house with men — despite the fact that the show demonstrated that she didn’t so much as kiss any of them.
The editing on “I Want My MTV” also was done in Utah, along with other post-production work.
Blast from the past
Almost 40 years after MTV launched, it’s unrecognizable from what it once was. Music videos are almost nonexistent in a schedule filled with shows like “Teen Mom” and “Catfish.”
“They really don’t even play music much anymore at all on MTV, other than the Video Music Awards,” Measom said.
But the nostalgia for the original MTV remains strong — and a look back at what a huge force the channel was in the ’80s and early ’90s is a revelation to the children of the generation that grew up watching.
“The one thing that I’ve been surprised at in the limited run the film has had thus far [at film festivals] is millennials love it,” Meason said. “I think there’s a certain sense that the ’80s were interesting and fun, but I think that they get to see what their parents actually loved.”
Waldrop said a friend in his 20s “told me, ‘Oh, I kind of get my dad now after watching the movie. I get where my dad’s generation was coming from.’ I didn’t see that coming — that wasn’t part of the intention — but you can kind of see the choices made by people in the ’80s and ’90s a little more clearly.”