Thursday, January 6, 2011


What follows is the never-published introduction I wrote for the 2001 coffee-table book MTV UNCENSORED.  No permission is needed to post it because no one ever used it... until now.

"You'll never look at TV the same way again."

When VJ Mark Goodman first said those words, in the very first segment in the very first minute on the very first day of MTV, no one knew that it wasn't just hype.  That ultimately, television would, indeed, change forever.

If you're under the age of 25, it is probably hard to imagine a world without MTV.  That big blocky M with the graffiti TV added almost as an afterthought is known internationally - once voted among the top ten logos ever - along with the CBS eye, the swastika, the Star of David and the Cross.

But until MTV launched on August 1st, 1981, just a handful of people knew what it was - and even THEY didn't quite agree on what it should be - or even what it should be called.  That small group spent the next few years creating and recreating a television channel unlike anything that had come before:  24 hours a day - unheard of! - devoted to (of all things) rock music - more like a radio station than a TV station.

Music.  Television.  MTV.

Absurd.  And yet it worked.

Younger viewers embraced the fledgling network.  They quickly caught on to the fast-paced cutting, the sexy visuals, the vivid colors, the hard-thumping early 80's techno music.  And why not?  This was a generation that had grown up on the fast-paced cutting, vivid colors and rocking music of Sesame Street. 

MTV was the next logical step.

For all of the revolutionary television and music video techniques that emerged and were credited to MTV in the early 80's, they had their roots in films like HELP!, A HARD DAY'S NIGHT and television shows like the MONKEES, PARTRIDGE FAMILY and yes, Sesame Street.  Is it really that great a leap of logic to get from Big Bird to Jesse Camp?

In turn, the MTV "look" during the 80's influenced movies, commercials, television and design.

For the young professionals who worked at MTV back then, those were heady days.  A time to learn their craft, stretch creative muscles and try doing television in a way no one had imagined.  Without the sky-high budgets of most network television at the time, producers, directors and the hundred of people who put the shows together learned to fend for themselves, using creativity and ingenuity to solve problems rather than money.

Many of the people who toiled behind the scenes at MTV in the early days have gone on to even greater success:  as producers, feature film directors, network executives - even as stars of music, film and television.

But even for those who did not go on to fame, pretty much ANYone who has worked at MTV for even a week has a tale to tell:  a celebrity encounter, a trip to an exotic location gone wrong, an on-air mishap that became legendary in the retelling.  Some of those stories were shared with friends and family and insiders at MTV.  Few were told outside the MTV offices.

Until recently.

In the summer of 1998, to promote the channels upcoming VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS show, MTV commissioned a two-hour show that would take a behind-the-scenes look back at past VMA's.  It was simply seen as another way to repurpose highlights from past shows, and perhaps give viewers an inside glimpse into the makings and untold stories of the annual event.

Various titles were bandied about:  Behind the VMA's, VMA's Exposed, Inside the VMA's.  All the traditional sorts of titles.  Eventually, with a little smirk, writer-producer Stu Cohn tossed his contribution to the brainstorming session:  VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS UNCENSORED.

A bit of nodding.  Not bad.  Better than the others.  It sounded kind of... sexy.  Kind of forbidden.  Kind of like the stuff we're not supposed to be telling.

The show was an unexpected hit.  VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS UNCENSORED didn't just tell dry, behind-the-scenes stories - it evolved an attitude.  This wasn't MTV patting itself on the back - it was MTV shooting itself in the foot - telling stories which had NEVER been publicly told.  An odd mixture of inside anecdotes and irreverent tattle telling told by MTV personalities and insiders.  The ratings, for cable, were impressive.  And UNCENSORED became the industry talk at that year's Video Music Awards.

At MTV, as at most television networks, when something garners ratings, there's only one course of action:  do it again.

A sequel was commissioned- this time a look back at MTV's SPRING BREAK UNCENSORED.

Sprinkled with a few celebrities like Jerry Springer and former VJ's Ed Lover and Dr. Dre, the nudity, debauchery and untold stories in THAT show grabbed even HIGHER ratings.

A weekend phone call from MTV News and Production executive VP, Dave Sirulnick to producer David Levin put the next special into the works.  Little did they know.

"We want to do a bigger one - a two-hour show.  MTV UNCENSORED.  18 years of the best untold stories.  The anecdotes you wouldn't have known - unless you were there.  It's not the HISTORY of MTV.  It's not a "making of" show.  It's just a bunch of great stories presented for the first time.  With a sense of humor.  A little self-deprecating.  It is not for us to tell the historical significance of MTV.  Or the impact.  Or the influence.  Others can do that.  This is the story of MTV as only we can tell it.  From the inside."

It was an inspiring idea.

Of course, though, everyone knew what that really meant:  endless nights and weekends, screening thousands of hours of video-tapes, finding the footage, the stories, the sound-bites from eighteen years (18 YEARS!!) of MTV archives.  Talking to endless MTV veterans.  A half dozen segment producers, interns, writers, editors, a coordinating producer - even a librarian to keep track of all the tapes - conducting new interviews, researching, screening, logging and editing until their eyeballs were bleeding.

Some higher ups at MTV didn't even want the show to be done.  MTV should not be about looking back.  It should be about looking forward - about the next trend, not the last one.  Literally, some of these were stories that even MTV didn't want told!  What if we offend a star?  What if we give away the mystery?  What if nobody ever wants to speak to us again?  How do we do it in a way that would give a sense of the scope?  How do we show people what it is REALLY like to work at MTV?

In the end, UNCENSORED went on to become one of MTV's popular on-air franchises, even garnering four Emmy nominations (which, appropriately enough, lost to NBC's annual Thanksgiving Day broadcast hosted by the TODAY show crew).

But people love to tell their stories, and audiences seem insatiable about hearing them.  Even stars have come out to spill their guts.  Cindy Crawford, Will Smith, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Dennis MIller, Janeane Garofalo, Ben Stiller, Chris Rock, Fred Durst, Kid Rock, Jon Stewart and many more have all appeared on UNCENSORED.

UNCENSORED has covered the MTV Movie Awards, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, Jim Carrey, Choose or Lose and even aired on sister-network, CBS, to reveal the inside stories of Superbowl Uncensored.

Nearly two-hundred interviews have been done for UNCENSORED in the past two and a half years.  Huge chunks of these interviews, though, never made it on-air - usually cut for time.  Which means that there are still hundreds of great MTV stories still untold.

Until now.

When it came time to do a book commemorating the 20th anniversary of MTV, many ideas were bandied about, again.  The book would be a celebration, not a pat on the back.  Something that would be an irreverent look back, but not necessarily a definitive history.  Something that would give readers and inside glimpse at the channel, what it's like to work at MTV, how things happened, as seen by the people who were there.

Uncensored seemed to be the right format.

This book is a collection of anecdotes culled from the outtakes of hundreds of interviews which were done for the original Uncensored series.  A few new interviews were compiled for the sake of scope.  Each person we've spoken to has led to another and another.  And for every person we spoke to, there are dozens more who have been, unfortunately, left out.

Because EVERYONE has their story.  It should also be noted that these are personal remembrances.  Some may not even be remembered accurately.  Anecdotes and legends tend to grow with time.  Your mileage may vary.

Thus, no attempt has been made to be a complete history of MTV.  Someone else can take on THAT massive job.  Having grown up in the MTV environment we prefer to think non-linearly, and keep looking forward.

Except when we remember that one time when...

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