Nirvana Unplugged | still from video
Jarl Mohn talks with XPN’s Dan Reed about bridging the 80s and 90s on MTV, launching Unplugged, Yo! MTV Raps and more
Delaware Valley native Jarl Mohn served as executive vice president of MTV from 1986 to 1990 — a crucial time in the network’s creative trajectory. By the mid-80s, MTV’s ratings were starting to lag, a comedown of sorts from the blockbuster success of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” So while the station in its early days had been programmed like a “radio station with pictures,” Mohn saw that appeal waning.
“It wasn’t compelling anymore,” he said in an interview with XPN’s Dan Reed. “The excitement that you got when you turned on MTV in 1981, seeing these bands that you might not have ever heard of before…it was really exciting! But the novelty of it really did wear off.”
His solution, embrace the “TV” in MTV, and treat it like a television station — where longer-form programs drove the ratings. “We need to be more of a lifestyle channel than a music channel…but one based in music,” he told Reed, and this led to the production of shows like MTV News, Remote Control, and others, paving the way for its offbeat 90s programming, from Beavis and Butt-Head to The Real World.
Listen to Mohn and Reed’s entire conversation, and read some highlights below.
…on making the transition to long-form programming.
“Longer form programming in television is what drives the ratings. That’s what finally dawned on me, and we really pushed hard to get it done. … First we focused on the music shows long-form: we hired Kurt Loder from Rolling Stone, he did MTV News. We did The Week In Rock, we were doing Rockmentaries, half hours on an artist. Every time we put a longer-form show on, we had higher ratings. And then we started to experiment: we said let’s do a 1980s version of American Bandstand…so we did Club MTV with Downtown Julie Brown, that did well. We tried a series of things, and each time we put it on they outperformed music videos by an incredible magnitude.”
…on the launch and surprise success of Yo! MTV Raps.
“At that time, MTV was playing a lot of hair bands. Rap music and hair bands do not mix. So I said ‘it’s not going to perform well, but it’s important that we do it, it’s an important part of what’s going on in music today. Don’t be disappointed in the ratings, I won’t be, it’s gonna be fine.’ … [But] it was a ratings powerhouse! It was one of those things I did not expect to be a hit. I thought it was important for us to do to represent what was happening [in music], and we had two really great producers, and a whole staff, really creative, smart people putting that together. It was a smart, smart show and the audience loved it.”
…on the back-to-basics approach of MTV Unplugged.
“The mission was let’s try and keep as much music on [the air] as we can, let’s try to find a way to make it more interesting and engaging so it’s not just…’how can we find the newest, weirdest, most experimental, highliest edited video?’ And Unplugged was really almost a response going the other way: let’s bring people back to the roots of music. And that was a very, very successful franchise.”