MTV LOOKS MORE ALIVE AT 5

MTV is the most talked-about pop culture success of the '80s. So who can blame the music-video channel for patting itself on the back during its fifth birthday celebration throughout August (with a repeated special every night)--or be surprised that the music industry for offering congratulations in such displays as a multi-page Billboard magazine advertising supplement?

When MTV debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, lots of know-it-alls scoffed at the risky venture--a venture that's gone on to success, fame, controversy and pervasive influence on everything from record sales to jeans ads to $30-million movies.

But here's the question: As MTV hauls out the hoopla, should we, too, don our party hats?

There's no simple yes or no. MTV is a picture puzzle made up of too many pieces. In fact, it's one of the most exciting spots on the TV dial and one of the dullest and most exasperating things television has to offer.

It all depends on when you watch.

When's the best time to watch MTV?

Any time the regular video-then-veejay-talk-then-video programming isn't on. Unfortunately, that's still what's on most of the time.

Hour after hour, this predictable format still revolves around the showing of rock videos, the reading of pop news, the recitation of tour schedules and the pushing of whatever MTV is pushing at the moment. Only a few of the videos are really worth watching. There are never more than two videos in a row without a break--even if the break is only an MTV logo with that same old theme song.

Pseudo-hip veejays still treat almost every video, artist and event with the same namby-pamby attitude. In fact, up until just a couple of months ago, the same five "video jocks" who started in August '81 were still babbling on.

Even when two veejays recently left their positions, it wasn't necessarily cause for hope. True, the worst of all (Nina Blackwood) was one of the two. But the best of the five also went--the pleasantly jocular jock J.J. Jackson (who's remaining with the channel on a "part-time" basis).

Since Blackwood and Jackson have stepped out of their positions, only one permanent veejay has been hired. She's Julie Brown, a veteran of English telly who has come across as neither better nor worse than her new colleagues--but she is different. Her energetic personality is sometimes grating, sometimes amusing.

Since MTV's fledgling period, these video-after-video hours have changed notably in only two ways. There are more commercials, reflecting MTV's surge in viewers and advertisers. And there are a few more black artists--a development that continued after much press criticism and the viewer acceptance of Michael Jackson's videos.

But watch MTV into the night--especially on weekends--and the real changes become apparent.

Almost any time the channel puts on something other than the not-so-merry-go-round of videos, it becomes considerably more interesting.

MTV, for all its faults, is still much more in touch with modern pop music than any other cable channel or network.

Where to start looking for MTV's better side? Try "The Cutting Edge."

OK, this hourlong show is on only once a month (7:30 p.m. every fourth Sunday). And it's produced not by MTV but by a record company, I.R.S. (though it's not limited to that label's artists). But "Edge" is simply the best program about pop music that we have. It lives up to its excellent name, spotlighting the most interesting and adventurous new acts, with a strong emphasis on American bands and on performers from the Los Angeles area.

"Basement Tapes," though currently on a break (it'll return Aug. 7), is another heartening show. For the last three years, this monthly showcase for unsigned bands (at least the ones that can afford to shoot a video and pass an MTV panel) has been rather disappointing for its choices, but it's a valuable competition, with a major-label contract among the grand prizes.

"Rock Influences" (on the third Sunday of every month at 7 p.m.) makes a sometimes entertaining and enlightening connection between current and past performers, with interviews, videos and film clips.

MTV's concerts--one every Saturday night at 8 p.m. for an hour--have generally been well-recorded both in terms of visuals and sound. The choice of acts, though, tends too much toward the duller hard-rock bands. Memorable exceptions: performances by the Police and the Cars.

Unfortunately, MTV's British import "London Calling" has gone the way of the previous English music show "The Tube." Both were disappointing, but still afforded rare views of the London scene.

But there is a rather startling English import on MTV--startling first because it's only marginally musical, and second because it's a sitcom. But what a sitcom. "The Young Ones" (a half-hour at 8:30 p.m. every Sunday) depicts anarchy in the U.K. (in one crazy house, anyway) featuring the silly/surreal adventures of four unlikely housemates.

If the plot of "The Young Ones" reminds you of "The Monkees," it must have had the same effect on someone at MTV. The channel showed every episode of the late-'60s series earlier this year--a nice revival that spurred a Monkees reunion and put a Monkees best-of album on the 1986 pop charts. And the brisk old show held up well.

The MTV special programming that best caught the public eye was the Live Aid and the Amnesty International concerts. Other such specials have included the Montreux Rock Festival, a series of "Spring Break" segments from Daytona Beach, and the recent premiere party for Prince's "Under the Cherry Moon," which was the culmination of an MTV contest and featured a live performance by the star.

Some of these helped MTV diminish its image as a predictable video machine, while others (the atrocious Spring Break, for instance) were simply annoying.

But there's more--including the best regular shows MTV has offered yet.

This year has been the most encouraging yet for MTV content. Not just because of such one-day wonders as the Amnesty concert, but due to valuable new ways of presenting the channel's bread-and-butter videos.

In previous years, MTV launched a few video-oriented features that are still part of its lineup: The "Top 20 Video Countdown," a weekly showing of clips most requested by viewers (8 p.m. Friday, repeated at 1 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Monday), "Friday Night Video Fights," where one popular video is pitted against last week's champ (7 p.m.) and "Guest Veejay," where Cyndi Lauper, Liberace, Billy Martin and other celebrities have briefly taken over for the regulars (Tuesday nights at 7).

None of these have been bad ideas, but none have been very exciting, either, except for the more amusing guest veejays. However, this year saw the debut of three video shows of a different nature, each offering a fresh way of presenting new videos.

"New Video Hour" (shown twice on Mondays, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.) began in January, introducing new videos by established artists and new artists with mass appeal. Before this program, the only way to see the newest clips was to just sit there and wait for them through the hours of veejays, commercials and older videos. Also, the host presents information on the artists and news of videos being made.

Last month saw the launching of "The International Hour," a showcase of videos from around the world (mostly Europe, it seems) that will run on the last Thursday of each month at 9 p.m. Hosted by Julie Brown, the first edition mainly served to indicate that Americans and Britons aren't the only ones who can make awful videos, but there were a couple of intriguing entries, and the format is promising.

But even more encouraging is "120 Minutes," a weekly program that started in March and is shown at 9 p.m. Sundays. New and recent videos by relatively little-known performers have finally found a home at MTV. We're told about new releases by underground artists and kept up with matters that MTV-as-usual would never care about.

The new and special programming at MTV may indicate that the channel is becoming more willing to set aside certain portions of its schedule for narrow-interest audience, instead of trying to please all the people all the time.

So why not take it further? One idea seems a natural: How about a black/urban hour once a week? And it's not tough to think of other worthy additions and changes.

Of course, that still leaves the bulk of MTV programming: the vegetating veejay/video format. There are some very small but encouraging signs here, too. The channel has recently thrown in some off-the-wall snippets to spice up things--little excerpts from cartoons and old TV series, where the character comment reflects humorously on the next video, etc. Considering that MTV is directed toward a supposedly hip, young audience, wouldn't it make sense to open things up with a lot more of the unpredictable, the humorous and the wild-and-crazy?

After all, this was the cable channel built on taking a big chance. Let's hope it's not afraid to take a few smaller ones.

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