Working the Math and the Magic

Before he could get a driver’s license, the 15-year-old Methodist minister’s son wanted to learn how to fly. He needed a job to pay for the lessons. The tailor in his hometown of Brookhaven, Miss., told him he was too young to work at his hip clothing store. The Piggly Wiggly had no openings, so he headed over to the 250-watt AM radio station.

After reading copy for the boss, he was hired. That humble start eventually led to programming jobs at Pittsburgh’s WPEZ and Chicago’s WMAQ-FM, and when he was 23, Pittman was hired to program NBC’s flagship radio station, WNBC in New York. “I got completely hooked on radio,” he told The New York Times in 2013.

In 1976, People praised Pittman as a “22-year-old boy wonder” for shifting the format at WMAQ to Country and engineering what his boss, Charles Warner, called “the biggest turnaround in radio history.”

That early triumph attracted the attention of WNBC the following year, and upon his arrival, Pittman switched to Hot AC from Adult Top 40 and canned the DJs, among them Don Imus and Cousin Brucie. Ratings dropped, but the wunderkind was busy realizing a dream of moving into TV.

Pittman was producer and host of a music show, Album Tracks, that aired on NBC-owned TV stations in 1978. While he was building his credits in TV, American Express made an unlikely deal in 1979, buying half of Warner Cable. They created two companies: one that operated cable systems and another that fashioned cable networks; Pittman became programmer of what would eventually become The Movie Channel.

Buoyed by the success of Album Tracks, a video-music show on Nickelodeon that ran in 1980 and a video music program on the Warner Amex Qube cable system in Columbus, Ohio, Pittman and his team pitched the idea of an all-music channel to then-Warner Communications Chairman Steve Ross and Amex executives.

“We all felt confident that Ross would support the idea,” Pittman wrote in a 1991 first-person piece for the Los Angeles Times commemorating MTV’s first decade. “After all, it was Ross who had developed and championed the vision of ‘narrowcasting’—in which a cable network takes on one subject matter and does only that, continuously, rather than trying to be all things to all people—and Warner had a big investment in music. Additionally, David Horowitz had emerged as our guardian angel—nurturing the idea along at the various divisions of Warner Communications.

“We realized that almost all TV was narrative in form,” Pittman pointed out. “The appeal of music, however, has nothing to do with that structure… With the creation of MTV, we changed the form of TV to fit the form of music, as opposed to trying to fit music into a narrative structure.”

It wasn’t an easy sell at first. The Warner Amex board initially said no to the idea of “radio with pictures,” stating it was too risky. Pittman and John Lack, the Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co. EVP who came up with the idea of a music channel, took their case to Ross, AMEX CEO Jim Robinson and EVP Lou Gerstner, bringing along two music industry heavyweights—Doug Morris, then with Atlantic, and Warner Bros.’ Stan Cornyn, according to Rob Tannenbaum and Craig MarksI Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Video Revolution.

In Ross’ conference room, Pittman spelled out how to build a music channel in a 20-minute pitch. After explaining that labels would supply videos for free and that there would be minimal costs in programming, Robinson pledged $10 million. Eventually, they got the full $25 million and circled Aug. 1 as a start date, figuring trends start in the summer.

With a team that included Freston (who’d been hired by Lack), Fred Seibert and John Sykes, MTV went live on Aug. 1, 1981 and before long was making hits out of acts that couldn’t get played on the radio, especially new British bands associated with new wave. It was an audacious move, and it worked.

If you remember, the state of the record industry in 1980 was alarming,” Pittman wrote in that Times piece. “Radio had stopped playing new music, records were rarely identified when played, the new music out of England couldn’t get exposure in the United States, and the record business’s costs had spiraled out of control. A bad combination—high costs and no new breakthrough records.”

To garner the support of industry, every video ID’d the artist, song, album and label. Freston and Sykes saw it was working when they visited Tulsa, Okla., soon after launch and record stores were selling out of the music MTV featured faster than music that was getting radio airplay.

In 1983, not only did Nielsen ratings show it was building an audience, the network turned a profit in the fourth quarter. A year later, MTV was the highest-rated basic-cable network.

“The best advice Bob ever shared with me was simply, ‘Don’t be afraid to make quick decisions,’” Monte Lipman tells us. Pittman’s quarterbacking of MTV—deftly calling audibles as he led the team to paydirt—stands as the quintessential example of the quick thinking that has characterized his career.

There’s no debate that MTV quickly had an effect on pop culture as music video styles started showing up in films and TV shows; witness Miami Vice. Keeping the brand hot, Pittman told The New York Times in 1985 as VH1 was being launched, that research was a key element.

The MTV atmosphere that surrounded the music videos owed to Pittman incorporating the opinions prospective viewers gave in surveys.

‘‘I love research,’’ he told the New York Times. ‘‘I don’t say that too often because it is something people look down on. But I use research to find out what people like and what they are doing. It is better than listening to the guy next door, because that gives you a warped perspective.’’

The core MTV audience—12- to 24-year-olds, Pittman found—wanted ‘‘irreverence, zaniness, instability, chaos, a frenetic pace, lots of disjointed thoughts, and in-depth information about the music.’’

Much as MTV was creating new star acts and giving its vee-jays such as Martha Quinn and Mark Goodman a platform far bigger than anything they experienced in radio, Pittman always knew where the focus had to be. In the book I Want My TV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Goodman remarks, “Bob’s thing was always, MTV is the star, and if MTV is big, you’re big.”

Under Pittman’s watch the channel launched the Video Music Awards, must-see coverage of spring break and initiated formatted programs such as 120 Minutes, Yo! MTV Raps and Headbangers Ball. It also boldly broadcast 16 hours of Live Aid from Philadelphia and London. He also launched the adult-skewing VH1.

“When I was there,” Pittman said at the 2016 Further Future Festival, “we had some real conscious discussions as to whether we should grow old with this generation or whether we should be the voice of young America, and in the end we decided to go with the voice of young America. What that meant was that we had to deliberately stop doing things that we knew were successful. We had to make change a constant part of the daily process, which I believe is true of any business—you need to evolve or die.”

Read the complete profile here.