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Published: Wednesday, 8/1/2001

MTV turns 20 with a low-key nostalgia show

BY DAVID BAUDER
ASSOCIATED PRESS

Martha Quinn, J.J. Jackson, Alan Hunter, Nina Blackwood, and Mark Goodman will appear - and many current MTV viewers will wonder: Who?

They'll stare blankly upon hearing the names of the five original VJs, and that's precisely why there was a big debate within MTV about whether to take note of the anniversary at all.

No television network is so relentlessly devoted to the pursuit of what's hip - excuse us, what's "da bomb" - in everything it does. And what can be more unfashionable than nostalgia? Might as well be strapped to the kitchen table and force-fed your parents' stories about the good old days.

"I was sort of first in line saying, 'What do we want to talk about this for?' " said Judy McGrath, president of the MTV Group.

She shuddered at the image of Beavis and Butt-Head, who'll also make a return appearance at the party, mocking the idea. McGrath was persuaded by the understanding that MTV viewers, with a median age of just under 21, are more receptive to the music of other generations than their parents were and that they enjoy behind-the-scenes looks at favorite institutions.

Even so, the celebration is fairly muted, with only the party and a 12-hour special showing some of the best music videos of 20 years. Method Man will perform at the bash, telecast live from New York's Hammerstein Ballroom at 8 tonight (tape delayed for the West Coast), and so will SUM-41, Busta Rhymes, TLC, and Jane's Addiction.

MTV is where it's at today - the immensely profitable first entertainment stop for millions of young people - because of two decisions that didn't seem obvious when the network blinked to life at 12:01 a.m. on Aug. 1, 1981, with the video for the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star."

One decision was not to grow old with its audience, and the other was not to be limited by the "M" in Music Television's name.

The first nonmusic programming, fashion coverage, appeared in the mid-1980s. Now it's assumed you won't see a music video on a network that once depended upon them unless it's during insomniac hours or within the context of another show.

This made business sense, since advertisers never believed video viewers would stick around for their commercials, and it helped to insulate the network from the ebbs and flows of the music industry.

MTV's first celebrities were known for introducing music. Its latter-day figures, people like Tom Green or Johnny Knoxville of Jackass, are just as likely to have nothing to do with it.

Only the patients in a plastic surgeon's waiting room have a greater need to look young than MTV. More than any other network, MTV essentially throws out its old audience for something new every few years, like a high school that fills up with an entirely new student body while only the teachers and principal remains.

Actually, it's even quicker than that.

"We turn over in a 21/2-year cycle," McGrath said, "when we take the development and programming people and the sales staff and say, 'You have to start all over again. Let's take everything off. What are we going to feel like? What's the attitude?'"

Everything goes under a microscope, even - figuratively speaking - each new crop of interns that arrives at MTV's Manhattan headquarters is new research material.

"We look at them," McGrath said, "and say, 'What are they doing? What are they listening to? What devices are they carrying around? Are they multi-pierced or not? Are they wearing all dark clothes? Are they introverted?"'

So Carson Daly is likely to find himself beached on the shoals of show biz with another former MTV sweetheart, Martha Quinn, sooner than he thinks. Quinn is now a radio host in California, pregnant with her second child.

It's been a phenomenal recipe for success. MTV has been the fastest-growing cable network of all time, and it's still growing, said Jessica Reif Cohen, an analyst for Merrill Lynch.

"They've kept it fresh," Cohen said. "They've reformatted. It has great management. They don't have a competitor, so they completely dominate their niche. Every so often someone tries to come in and attack it, but they haven't been successful."

There's no sign of a slowdown, she said. That doesn't mean there aren't challenges ahead, and MTV now feels on the verge of another turnover.

The network was early to embrace reality TV with Real World, now in its 10th season, and the next entry is Flipped, premiering Monday. It will give people the chance to experience a different side of life - like when a suburban mom and her high school-age daughter swap roles for a day.

In music, the teen pop wave that MTV rode for the past few years is cresting. Whatever's next - be it the soul music revival or a new crop of hard rockers - may not be as dependent upon Total Request Live.

Ah, but those are worries for another day.

The 20th birthday is approaching. MTV is nearly of legal age. Time to party.



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