Many people have commented on the disappearance of music from music television. Fewer people have looked closely at what has been installed in its place. Whereas music videos were once mainstays of MTV and VH1, historical programming increasingly dominates these channels, especially VH1.
The move towards historical programming at VH1 began in 1997 with Behind the Music, a program the network describes as taking, “an intimate look into the personal lives of pop music’s greatest and most influential artists, tracing their struggles, setbacks and successes in more than 150 episodes to date.” The historical orientation was made more explicit and became more entrenched with the hit series, I Love the 80s, in which:
Each one-hour episode takes viewers on a stream-of-consciousness tour of one year of the Eighties with vivid flashbacks of the people, music, movies, TV shows, products, fashions, fads, trends and major events that defined pop culture that year.
This success was followed in turn by I Love the 70s, I Love the 90s, I Love the 80s Strikes Back, I Love the 80s 3-D, and I Love the 90s Part Deux. VH1 now offers a wide range of historical programming, including Behind the Movie, Before They Were Rock Stars, Driven (a sort of celebrity hagiography), and 40 Most Awesomely Bad [blank] Songs Ever. To a lesser extent, MTV has also entered the history biz with programs such as The Social History of Hair and The Social History of Body Piercing.
I suspect that at first the music channels didn’t know it was history they were doing. But they’ve definitely caught on. The producers of one of VH1’s newest shows, When [blank] Ruled the World clearly know it:
When [blank] Ruled The World is a one-hour oral and visual history of pop culture phenomena for VH1. This is not history. This is POPhistory — the story of a cultural history as it was felt collectively by a mass culture.
So by now VH1’s producers know this kind of programming is history. But the apology implied by the use of the term “POPhistory” suggests they’re worried about calling it history lest they turn someone off. This in turn suggests that VH1’s producers think their audiences haven’t yet figured out for themselves that this stuff is history.
I’m not so sure. I suspect audiences have known it was history all along and have liked it in spite—-or perhaps because—-of that. I wonder if VH1 has any research on this.