MTV News, which chronicled the music and politics of the '90s, shuts down
Perhaps it's fitting that MTV News, a youth brand if there ever was one, never hit the big 4-0.
On Tuesday, Paramount Global pulled the plug on MTV News, a cable television staple from the late 1980s through the early aughts, and was particularly well-known — especially to Gen-Xers and older millennials — for chronicling the heady music culture of the ’90s.
The influential and crowd-pleasing telecast brought pop music culture, news and politics to young audiences, long before the internet and Napster changed the industries of media and music in fundamental ways.
The news division was shuttered as part of a larger round of layoffs that saw MTV and Showtime's domestic staff cut by nearly 25%, according to an internal note to employees from Chris McCarthy, president of Showtime/MTV Entertainment Studios and Paramount Media Networks.
McCarthy said the move was part of a consolidation of the company's Showtime operations and MTV Entertainment Studios. The company also is collapsing nine network teams into a single group.
"This is a tough yet important strategic realignment of our group," McCarthy wrote. "Through the elimination of some units and by streamlining others, we will be able to reduce costs and create a more effective approach to our business as we move forward."
MTV News got started around 1984. At the time, MTV mostly ran music videos but Viacom hired a young executive, Doug Herzog, as MTV's news director. He'd been working at "Entertainment Tonight" and had caught the network's attention with a Bruce Springsteen interview scoop.
"This was the summer of 'Purple Rain,' 'Born in the USA,' the Jacksons' Victory Tour and Madonna. It was like the Mt. Rushmore days of music video," Herzog told The Times in an interview. "They gave me a little money to start a department. But the guys who ran MTV, like Bob Pittman, were radio guys, and they didn't really want to interrupt the music."
MTV once stood for Music Television, after all.
Initially, there were hourly news segments, Herzog said. The turning point came the following year with the Live Aid concert to raise money for famine relief in Africa. MTV News staff helped coordinate live interviews of some of rock music's biggest names.
"All the sudden, news became a thing," Herzog said.
But the network encountered some resistance, he said.
"The biggest stars — Madonna, Prince, Bruce and others — were a little less interested in talking to the VeeJays, because they thought they were, well, fluffy," Herzog said. "Some of that was unfair criticism, but we felt that maybe [the artists] wanted someone with more credibility. So Linda [Corradina] came up with this idea of hiring Kurt Loder from Rolling Stone magazine."
Loder was hired in 1987 to anchor a stand-alone program, "The Week in Rock." Then-Viacom executives quickly saw the potential of delivering the topical news in a nonstuffy format to further engage MTV's core viewers who loved music videos, movies and the mall.
Within a few years, Loder, along with correspondent Tabitha Soren, Gideon Yago and others, had achieved celebrity status amid MTV's meteoric rise in American pop culture. In 1992, all three presidential candidates — incumbent Republican George H.W. Bush, Democrat Bill Clinton and independent candidate Ross Perot — appeared in interviews on MTV News as part of their campaign swings.
In 1993, MTV broadcast a special report, "Hate Rock," anchored by Loder, which a Los Angeles Times reviewer said provided a "sober assessment of the forces that have combined to create a league of race-baiting, post-punk skinheads" in Germany and elsewhere. The following year, MTV News brought viewers a special report on "Gangsta Rap."
"We started doing more hard-hitting stuff," said Herzog. "We started making documentaries and winning awards. MTV, in those days, was a big cultural force. Everybody watched it, and everybody wanted to be a part of it, including Bill Clinton."
During a 1994 appearance by then-President Clinton at an MTV town hall to address the rise of violence, an audience member famously asked him: “Is it boxers or briefs?”
The moment became a national sensation, decades before the notion of "going viral" was part of the vernacular. That question, and Clinton's response ("Usually briefs"), shifted the boundaries of what was viewed as acceptable political discourse.
That same year, Loder interrupted MTV's regular programming with a special report to announce that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain had died by suicide.
Loder sat at a desk in the MTV Studios in New York, holding a single piece of paper. In a quick cadence, he announced that it was a "very sad day" and that "the leader of one of rock's most gifted and promising bands, Nirvana, is dead." He noted that Cobain's body had been found in a house in Seattle, and that he had apparently died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Some compared the scene to one three decades earlier, when Walter Cronkite broke into CBS programming to announce that President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas.
President Obama appeared several times over the years. In 2012, MTV News hosted a live 30-minute sit-down interview with him called "Ask Obama Live: An Interview With the President."
But over the years, amid corporate restructuring and the arrival of the edgier Vice News and BuzzFeed, MTV News' sway began to fade. MTV executive Van Toffler left the company in 2015.
Unlike their parents, digital natives didn't need to turn on TV to get the news. Social media filled that gap. YouTube swelled to prominence.
In 2016, Herzog — who was then in charge of the MTV networks, after a long stint running Comedy Central — tried to revive the MTV News brand by hiring several journalists, "my ill-fated attempt to reinvent MTV," he said.
In 2017, McCarthy attempted a high-profile reboot of MTV to bring it back to relevance. But despite those efforts, MTV News had continued to contract over the last few years, making it less relevant to consumers.
The onetime disruptors that cut into MTV's relevance also have lately fallen on hard times. BuzzFeed News shut down earlier this month and Vice Media is reportedly poised to file for bankruptcy amid a difficult ad market for online news sites.
The company's decision to lay off MTV staff and close the news unit comes amid heavy financial pressures on MTV's parent company, which reported last week that it had a net loss of $1.1 billion in the first quarter of this year.
Paramount now is focused on building its video streaming outlets, Pluto TV and Paramount+.
Staff writer Stephen Battaglio contributed to this report.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.