The Swarm

July 06, 2009

Debunking the Myth That Michael Jackson Broke Down MTV's 'Racial Barrier,' and Exposing the Hypocritical Media That Reports It: A Daily Swarm Report...

Alex Sherman

Did Michael Jackson really break down the racial barrier at MTV? Or does CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff deserve the credit? How about neither. Michael Jackson achieved breathtaking commercial success during a period of major transformations in media. Indeed, Thriller broke so many records it forever reshaped Jackson’s aura into an unstoppable force. But did MTV really have a racial barrier for Michael to break or was that just part of the hype? Alex Sherman reports:

Former CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff standing with Michael Jackson, David Geffen, and Lynda Emon on the Victory Tour’s opening night, 1984.


The day Michael Jackson died, cable news turned away from the turmoil in Iran to honor the passing of a legendary American entertainer. CNN had just earned a new term in the Twitter lexicon for its shoddy coverage of electoral theft, but the #CNNfail hashtag follows it from one breaking story to another for its hagiographic, hypocritical, and self-serving reporting on Michael Jackson’s legacy.

I found myself glued to the TV that day and, like many readers, I’ve pored over countless stories about his legacy over the last week. The spontaneous celebration of his music that erupted in the streets of New York warmed my heart and made me wonder if there will there ever be another entertainer who, in spite of his flaws, had the power to bring so many people together across racial, ethnic, cultural, and political barriers.

But during the wall-to-wall coverage of Jackson’s death, 24-hour cable news repeated ad nauseam the myth that Jackson was responsible for breaking down a racial barrier at MTV. CNN published a story about it as part of its Black in America 2 documentary series chronicling “the most challenging issues facing African Americans,” which it had been promoting heavily in the days preceding Jackson’s passing. The story quoted Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of black popular culture at Duke University, who compared MTV to a racially segregated state. “At the time that he releases Thriller,” Neal said, “I always argue that MTV was arguably the best example of cultural apartheid in the United States.” CNN claimed that “MTV didn’t play videos of black artists before Jackson” – a lie – in the “story highlights,” the bullet points at the top of the story for the hurried reader. The article also credited former CBS Records President Walter Yetnikoff with strong-arming the network into changing its “format” by threatening to pull other CBS Records artists from MTV’s music video rotation.


The Yetnikoff angle wasn’t really emphasized on TV news broadcasts, but the story has legs and has been echoing through the blogosphere. PopMatters noted the oversight in an insightful list of lessons to be learned from the Jackson coverage:

One point of fact that keeps coming up in his career is that he broke down racial barriers on MTV. In a sense that’s true but it’s much more accurate to say that it was actually CBS Records honcho Walter Yetnikoff – he was the one who told the network that they weren’t gonna get ANY more videos from the label’s artists unless they put Jackson in rotation. MTV caved in and it turned out to be a huge boost not just to Jackson but also to for the network.

In reality, this story continues to be a matter of dispute. In a recent interview with Billboard, former MTV Vice President of Programming Les Garland claimed the story is apocryphal. He said:

Billie Jean’ set the standard that day for what excellence in music video stood for. There was never a question that we were putting it on. There was never a threat from Walter Yetnikoff—it’s folklore. He got more upset because we didn’t play Willie Nelson or Barbra Streisand.

Many who remember those early years at MTV would be skeptical of Garland’s denial. MTV had a narrowly defined rock format that included few African American artists, including Prince, Tina Turner, Joan Armatrading, and the Bus Boys. But the stage was set for a high profile standoff after MTV declined to add the Rick James “Super Freak” video to its rotation in early 1983 and James denounced the channel repeatedly as “racist.”

However, there is considerable evidence that supports Garland’s claim and shows that the network itself was not enforcing a racial barrier.

MTV was launched in 1981 by Warner Amex, a company formed out of a 1979 merger between Warner Brother’s cable subsidiary and the American Express Company in which Amex invested $175 million in exchange for 50 percent of the company. 30 years later, a credit card company’s hefty investment in a cable company seems unusual—why would they drop so much cash into a cable concern?

The merger was precipitated by a series of court rulings and rules changes that made cable TV a suddenly much more profitable business venture. Until 1977, the industry faced major obstacles to growth such as an FCC ban on selling advertising and limitations on what types of sports and movies they could transmit. Their profit margins were small and as a result they could not afford to take on the debt necessary to expand into urban markets.

In a 1977 case brought by HBO and other cable companies against the FCC, the US Court of Appeals decided that those rules were arbitrary. The fall of the advertisement barrier spurred a new wave of investments and mergers, including the Warner Amex deal. Cable started to develop new channels to stimulate demand for subscriptions in areas they already served while urban markets remained the next frontier for growth.

At the time, 90 percent of African Americans lived in cities. But reaching urban customers was blocked by numerous problems. Laying cable under city streets was far more costly and involved than using the above-ground telephone wires in suburbs. Moreover, the process involved piggybacking on public infrastructure for which operators had to pay franchise fees, which were sometimes exorbitant because there was no national standard for the franchise application process, no limits to the fee a city could charge, and common quid pro quo deals at the municipal level of government.

Moreover, there wasn’t significant demand for the service among city dwellers. In the suburbs, there was an adaptive need for homes with bad reception to switch to cable. But in New York City, for example, television owners were well served by the powerful broadcast tower on top of the Empire State Building. Cable operators knew that in order to make the case to subscribe they would have to provide high quality programming exclusive to cable.

The logistical challenges to urban cable penetration were finally overcome in 1984 with the Cable Communications Policy Act, legislation the cable operators had wanted for years. It standardized the franchise process and set a cap on fees at 5 percent. [See Cable TV: From Community Antennas To Wired Cities.] The next wave would be the revolution in programming.

When Warner and Amex entered into their 50/50 deal in 1979, Warner wasn’t just receiving a major cash infusion to make capital investments. It was teaming up with the standard bearer for consumer marketing practices. Amex would benefit from cable’s coaxial two-way transmission lines for credit card transactions on home shopping networks and online banking, functions of the internet we take for granted today. But they were providing their skills as extraordinarily sophisticated consumer marketers who would help Warner fulfill the medium’s potential for niche marketing and narrowcasting. Thomas Dann, a key player in the Warner Amex deal whose career began in network television in the 1950s, told Thomas Whiteside of the New Yorker in 1985:

“When American Express came in with Warner to form Warner Amex as a joint venture it came, in part, because its people understand marketing. Warner didn’t know how to study and apply the demographics of the market the way American Express knows how. When Warner Brothers put a movie into the theaters, it was rolling dice; the public decided right at the box office how successful it was. Well, that’s quite different from the modern marketing of consumer goods. Procter & Gamble doesn’t do things that way. It doesn’t roll dice. It test-markets. It picks cities, marketing areas, it test-markets this, test markets that—it’s done by computer. These corporations understand the future of communications. And, beyond that, they understand how all-encompassing the whole communications revolution is bound to be… It’s public lighting by electricity for the fist time in London, putting an end to the gaslight. This revolution is going to encompass everything you do.”

Thus, MTV came into existence at a time when cable’s duality wasn’t fully understood by viewers because the idea of narrowcasting was in its infancy. MTV was a satellite-based national channel, so it resembled the mass audience-oriented broadcast networks. But it was meant to bypass the mass and cater to the narrow demographic of suburban cable subscribers and defined its programming principles based on those market conditions. (Subscribers to The New Yorker can read the 3-part essay here.)

Early MTV logo

By the time the “Thriller” video came out in 1983, MTV had already played “Beat it” and “Billie Jean” and the album had sold upwards of 10 million albums during its first year of release. But there was a reason why “Thriller” was a kind of entertainment that that nobody had ever seen before. It was a tool to hype demand for cable TV at a moment when expansion everywhere – including cities – was imminent. It was imperative for them to build demand for subscriptions.

Whereas “Billie Jean” and “Beat it” were directed (respectively) by a commercial director who made Miller Lite ads and a music video director who made early clips by the Human League, Adam and the Ants, and Heaven 17, CBS and Jackson tapped John Landis, one of the most powerful young directors in Hollywood to direct “Thriller.” Landis and Jackson conceived of it as a short film, originally distributing it theatrically with the re-release of “Fantasia,” a tactic that would make it eligible for an Academy Award.

When MTV paid $1 million for the exclusive rights for it, the first time it had ever done so, Garland remembered the acquisition in the context of decisions that were made not just at MTV but at other networks owned by Warner Amex. “We owned the Movie Channel at the time and bought movies exclusively,” he said. “We used that as the template.” Then, the network marketed “Thriller” as “event television,” programming it at special times so cable subscribers could invite their cable-less friends to experience the wonders of the black box. The same year, Warner landed its first exclusive franchise in a major African American market in Brooklyn and Queens. The following year, the cable TV lobby finally closed in on the Cable Communications Policy Act, the last barrier to cabled cities, and Michael Jackson went on his Victory tour.

Since “Thriller,” Jackson has found himself frequently in the media’s spotlight for his moral transgressions —either as a the victor of epic moral battles or as its disgraced loser. But he can always be credited with knowing how to play both sides of the coin, as did the media companies who took advantage of the spectacle he never failed to provide.

But today, Michael Jackson’s legacy is being rewritten for the purposes of money alone. The story of Jackson breaking a racial barrier at MTV is part of that revisionist history. MTV showed far fewer videos by African American artists before Michael Jackson than after him, but it’s hard to believe that they were enforcing a racial barrier.

The story has circulated in recent days because it makes for entertaining television. But it has the insidious effect of reinforcing the most basic cornerstone of the cable industry’s strategy for market growth: that cable is a place of events and milestones, and either you’re a part of it or you’re missing out on something important. At a moment when cable looks increasingly irrelevant to a generation of TV viewers who can circumvent subscriptions with Hulu, iTunes, Netflix, and other video on demand services, the importance of that message cannot be overstated.

Michael Jackson, may he rest in peace.

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