Were the Noughties a Golden Era for Music Television?
The noughties. The viscously deranged, bipolar noughties. If there was ever a decade defined by its total lack of definition it was then. In a time where pop culture was in free fall, nothing, especially the music industry’s obstinate old guard, could withstand the commercial influence of technology and the internet’s lingering omnipresence. That is, surprisingly, other than television.
Having drawn the curtains to arguably TV’s most content-rich decade in pop history, the 2000s not only faced the towering standards of the 90s but also the strong-arming of a growing online community. MTV was seemingly on an inexhaustible winning streak, padding out its airtime with era-encapsulising shows such as 120 Minutes, Beavis & Butthead, Yo! MTV Raps, MTV Unplugged, Amp and Headbanger’s Ball.
Closer to home, both watershed and late-night terrestrial programmes including TFI Friday and The Word epitomised the period’s romping rudeness. And yet, notwithstanding their fanatical cult bases, hardly any were financially sound enough to survive the millennium. Aiding to this ruthless culling of creativity, broadcasting houses had to work overtime to even barely sustain a regular turnaround of viewers.
Regardless of the new decade’s technological threats, there were many creative ripostes; some iconic, others absolute corporate fodder. MTV’s flagship show, Total Request Live, became the benchmark of what music television had to deliver trend-savvy teens in the noughties’ opening years.
While the concept of viewer participation and the function to dial-in requests to hear popular tracks was nothing new, the convergence of both phone and, more specifically, online interaction garnered mass commercial appeal. Carson Daly, the show’s foremost presenter, became a household name for guiding the daily programme’s audience through the top ten most demanded videos of the day and maintaining a sort of brazenness when bombarded with impromptu visits from ungovernable celebrities. But it was the heightened idea that we, the consumer, were in total control of what would be deemed a future hit that made TRL so iconoclastic. The show remoulded the dishevelled lawlessness of the 90s while experimenting with the internet’s then primitive interactive systems.
The 2000’s vast slew of mogul-feeding talent contests comfortably sidled close to modestly funded, smaller scale productions; almost all of which were enthusiastically promoted and embraced by stable viewing numbers. Channel 4’s teen arm, T4, introduced Britain to presenters Simon Amstell and Miquita Oliver in Popworld. The duo’s sandpaper dry wit caused hilariously anarchic friction between them and their egotistical guest stars. Its overt cynicism was the perfect antidote to the saccharine banality of the Top of the Pops formula. Amstell’s icy altercations with The Kooks’ Luke Pritchard and Gwen Stefani, coupled by asking knowingly inane questions such as ‘have you ever licked a battery?’ made Popworld not only a cult favourite but a hugely irreverent programme whose bite has never quite healed over.
Freshly Squeezed, an early morning offshoot of Popworld, unashamedly tried to mimic Amstell and Oliver’s surrealist shtick. Oddball regular segments and banter hungry hosts (including a young shaggy-haired Calvin Harris) segued between snippets of upcoming music videos and live studio performances. Preceded by Morning Glory, former presenters such as Alexa Chung, Rick Edwards, Nick Grimshaw, Jameela Jamil and Matt Edmondson were prevalent in the teen TV market through the mid to late 2000s. However, Freshly Squeezed lacked the sniping curtness of Popworld and the format was almost too safe, even for a breakfast show.
Nonetheless, its six-year tenure proved that pop still deserved a place on our screens.
In spite of the decade’s televisual reputation as being fundamentally pop oriented, variety was available. Sky Arts’ short-lived series From the Basement featured no regular host or audience and focused solely on the act of performance. Predominantly shot in Maida Vale Studios, The likes of Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, Thom Yorke, The White Stripes and Sonic Youth were invited to The Basement to perform under a minimal stylistic setting akin to that of The Old Grey Whistle Test.
The show was intended to capture artists in their element and “without the agony of TV promo, which everyone has to do but non one seems to enjoy,” according to the series’ producer Nigel Godrich.
Alternative music TV was predominantly sourced either digitally or via cable subscription. Having originally aired in 2008, Sky Digital’s The Pit, an underground metal culture show, continues to draw niche viewing numbers today. Zane Lowe as the sole host and VJ of MTV2’s (now MTV Rocks) Gonzo was another cheaply conjured primetime project featuring regular guests and interviews. Its simple blue screen projections, regular rundowns from the channel’s message boards and laid-back chatter from Lowe’s ‘Brown Couch’ became peerless and cemented the presenter as one of the primary journalists for industry accredited alternative music in the noughties through to present day.
Suffice to say, music television both digital and terrestrial struggled to retain financial backing as 2010 loomed. The market share for music video distribution practically somersaulted off an economic cliff post-2005 and advertising spaces rapidly migrated online. Genre specific outlets such as Channel U and Scuzz collapsed. Pathetically composed pitches such as indie’s unwanted answer to The X Factor, Orange unsignedAct, and the bizarre ‘candid camera’ show Nokia Green Room that monitored artists via hidden cameras before walking onstage were commissioned but gradually faltered after a single season. Social media was the prevailing framework and music television started stagnating faster than Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson’s marriage.
And yet, the peculiar allure of the noughties persists in present day. What has been universally panned as a decade of televisual inactivity is currently experiencing something of a renaissance. In a stab to resurrect a creatively crestfallen MTV, the channel’s execs have recently resuscitated both MTV Unplugged and TRL’s corpses to arguably muted fanfare. But is it too little too late? Simon Cowell’s ragged pop machine, The X Factor is still reeled our year after year despite its tumbling viewer stats. What this lack of onscreen content suggests is that while mainstream music’s placement stubbornly remains in a primetime position, the relationship between pop culture and television has gradually declined. And if the 90s is truly regarded as the ‘golden era’ of music TV, then it’s evident that for all of the noughties’ derangement, it was our final decade where the format still truly mattered.