Thursday, September 9, 2010

Beat It

Things were definitely looking up at MTV. Ad sales for the first quarter of 1983 had outpaced those of all of 1982. Video-mania was sweeping the country. Duran Duran, a band going nowhere in the States, had seen a flop album named Rio turn into a blockbuster. Months after its release and teetering on the edge of oblivion, the band, with the support of Capitol Records, had produced a video for “Hungry Like the Wolf,” and the images of the clean cut, androgynous group sailing across the South Seas, drove suburban girls (and boys) wild. The frenzy forced the hand of radio stations and in January 1983, Duran Duran was as hot an act as any.

It was all playing nicely into the hands of the corporate giant that was Warner American Express. MTV was a highly valuable product. There was more gold to be mined, and how to extract those nuggets was the subject of the day’s board meeting.

“People,” began 29-year old Bob Pittman. “Let’s get down to it.” Pittman had been a radio announcer at 15, and had programmed MTV to its present position of musical dominance. Though offered the CEO job at WASEC, Warner American Express’ cable company, he had demurred, accepting, instead, the position as executive vice-president. His charge was to cut the company’s $10 million dollar loss in half, to turn their growing musical supremacy into dollars, and he was certain he knew the way.

As the MTV brain trust sat down, Pittman continued. “Folks, the guys upstairs are really pushing for us to charge cable operators for MTV. They think that’s the way to guarantee a steady stream of revenue. CNN has been charging 15 cents per subscriber ever since they’ve been on the air. The Entertainment and Sports Programming Network is starting to charge as well, and what do they show Australian Rules football and college sports. Our audience wants their MTV and they’ll pay, I’m sure of that. Thoughts?”

Carolyn Baker, head of talent and artist relations, spoke. “Bob, it’s a fine idea, but to make that really pay off we need to dramatically expand our audience. Having a select group of cities broadcasting our network isn’t going to cut it. If we played Michael Jackson’s new videos, I’m sure…”

“Carolyn, stop, just stop. If this is going to be another ‘We need to play more black artists on MTV’ sob story, I’m not interested. We’re doing fine with what we have now.”

“Listen, Bob, you’re wrong. We shouldn’t have passed on Rick James last year. ‘Super Freak’ and ‘Give It to Me Baby’ were huge hits and we snubbed him. It certainly doesn’t help our image when Rick James is out there calling us racists.”

“You’re black Carolyn. How can he call you a racist?” Pittman let out a smug chuckle.

“I’m just saying it’s bad for the network.”

Pitttman demurred. “We didn’t do too badly turning down Rick James.”

“Those were big hits,” countered Baker.

“We didn’t suffer”

“But we could’ve done better. His album sold three million copies.”

The debate about black artists on MTV was a hot one. One faction felt that MTV was rock only, and that most black artists didn’t fit into the format. That made for a small list – Joan Armatrading, The Bus Boys, Prince, Tina Turner. Not many others after that. The other side pointed out that MTV wasn’t merely one of many video outlets, it was the only one, and they had an obligation to desegregate their lineup. This wasn’t FM radio. Plus, cutting off a huge audience just wasn’t smart business.

Pittman answered. “We’ve built up a solid suburban white audience. I won’t risk alienating that demographic.”

“Alienate our audience! Michael Jackson is already a huge star. You do know that, right? Off the Wall sold eight million copies a few years ago. This Thriller album is already a big hit and CBS is pushing it hard.”

That was true. The first single was a duet with Paul McCartney, sure to capture the most airplay possible. It did, screaming to number 2 on the Billboard charts. To keep the momentum going, Epic Records, the CBS subsidiary that carried Jackson, issued two singles in January. “Billie Jean” was a killer dance track aimed at the urban audience, and “Beat It,” with guitar god Eddie Van Halen, was sure to gain rock radio approval. Epic hoped both could hit the Top 40. To push the album that much further, Jackson made a video for each single.

CBS President Walter Yetnikoff knew MTV was not likely to embrace Michael, so he laid down an ultimatum – if MTV didn’t pick up Michael Jackson, they would be barred from playing all of his label’s stars. No more Billy Joel, no more Journey, threatened Yetnikoff.

“Sorry, Carolyn, I’m not buying it.”

“What about Yetnikoff? Doesn’t that concern you?” she asked. Surely she could use CBS’ position as the leverage she needed to open up MTV to black audiences. Michael was just the vehicle to get it started.

“Yeah, right, I can hear Walter now. ‘Oh, Billy Joel, we’re very worried about Michael Jackson’s career and, because of that, we’re not letting you on MTV. Oh, Journey, you’ll just have to help us with Michael Jackson’s sales. I’m sure you understand.’ They won’t stand for that and you know it and Walter knows it.”

“Have you actually seen the videos Bob? They’re groundbreaking. You’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Don’t have to see them Carolyn, we’re not going to put them on. Michael Jackson doesn’t fit into our format and that’s that. He can sell millions of records without us, and we can keep feeding our white kids The Stray Cats, A Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100. After all, bands like that will last a long, long time. We’ll be fine. I guarantee it.”

Though MTV made Michael Jackson bigger than ever, and, vice versa, the decision to show Michael Jackson on MTV was not an easy one. On March 2, 1983, one week after “Billie Jean” hit number one, the video aired. “Beat It” followed weeks later. Michael Jackson and MTV exploded together. Thriller, which had already sold two million copies, began selling an astounding 800,000 per week. By June it would top the seven million mark. MTV spread throughout the entire country and soon become the first profitable cable network ever.


  1. The Carolyn Baker part is bullshit I wasn't even there for the Michael Jackson part and I turned down Rick James' skank ho contention was a James Brown long form...that I was told our audience thought Rock and Roll started with the Beatles and I said it was up to us to educate them.
    Carolyn Baker
    Original Director of Talent and Acquisition MTV Warner Amex

  2. Carolyn, Maybe Baby is a series of historical fiction pieces. The "Beat It" installment is one of many "what if" scenarios; they're all part bullshit. So sorry if you feel ill-used.

    1. Much of it was true in vibe I was gone when Walter pulled that off but I knew about it at its conception....and was rolling on my ass with laughter when Bob and his lap man Garland (who was not a founder incidently) had to eat it !!! Bob called me later and asked "What were people saying about why they played Jackson...I told him the Yetnekoff story ..."That's not true" i told him he asked what people were saying ..... i hung up and hooted ..they have worked diligently to change history!!! I don't feel ill-used your historical fiction was on the right vibe!!!

  3. I'm glad you don't feel ill-used and happy that you feel I caught the vibe. I always tried to do a lot of research so the "fictional" turn in the Maybe Baby stories seemed real and believable.