PITTMAN, ROBERT W.

U.S. Media Executive

Robert W. Pittman was listed in the Spring 1995, Advertising Age special TV 50th Anniversary Issue as one of "50 Who Made a Difference" in the history of television. Known as "the father of MTV," at 27 he created the programming for MTV--the Music Television cable network--launched in 1981. MTV revitalized the music business and spawned the music video industry, which in turn influenced an entire new generation of television programming, production, and commercials that appealed to "the MTV generation" of young viewers.

Pittman began his remarkable career at 15 as a disk jockey in radio in his home town of Jackson, Mississippi. From there he went to Milwaukee, Detroit, and at 18 got his first job in programming as the program director of WPEZ-FM in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He took the Contemporary Music formatted radio station to the top of the ratings in its younger target demographics. He then moved to Chicago, and at 20 programmed country music on NBC-owned WMAQ-AM, where the station shot up from 22nd to 3rd. WMAQ's success is considered one of the major programming turn-around success stories in radio history.

Pittman duplicated the phenomenal success of WMAQ-AM when he was given the responsibility of programming WMAQ's co-owned FM station, WKQX, late in 1975, when he was 22. In one rating book he beat the long-time Album-Oriented-Rock (AOR) leader in the market and made a debut near the top of the target demographic ratings. In 1977 NBC sent Pittman to New York to program the floundering WNBC-AM. Once again the "Boy Wonder," as he was known in radio circles, led contemporary music and personality formatted WNBC programming to the top of the ratings in its target groups. Many knowledgeable radio programmers and historians consider Pittman to have been the most successful radio program director ever, primarily because of his spectacular success in a variety of formats.

His unusual combination of creative and analytic brilliance made him a rare programmer: a research-oriented manager who understood and could deal with the creative talents and egos of people in the music industry, disk jockeys, and personalities such as Don Imus (whom Pittman was instrumental in firing and then re-hiring at WNBC-AM). It was this creative/analytic brilliance that led John Lack, the Executive Vice President of Warner Satellite Entertainment Company (WASEC) to hire Pittman as the programmer for the Movie Channel in 1979 and give him his first television job. Although Lack had conceived of doing an all-music channel filled with programs, it was Pittman who develop the concept of an all video channel, where record-company-produced videos would be programmed as records were on a radio station.

As much as and perhaps more so than the music, it was the image, the attitude, that made MTV not only an instant hit with the anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian, under-30 audience it targeted. The network also their new cultural icon, the first network for the under-30 generation, designed for them by one of their own. From the inception, Pittman's genius was in positioning MTV to be different from the over-the-air, traditional networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). He hired cutting-edge, avant garde production houses to create logos that would be instantaneously recognizable as not network logos, as not traditional graphics or symbols or icons, and as not the network of any young person's parents. He made sure it would be impossible for any young person to click by MTV on a television set and mistake it for any other network or station. Immediate recognition and a unique look were his goals.

Another facet of Pittman's brilliance was his ability to conceptualize programming. He postulated a new theory to explain how young people who grew up with television consumed it differently from their parents. The older generation, he suggested, watched TV as they read books, in a linear way. The new television generation, he believed, processed TV in a non-linear manner, processing visual information much faster than the older, non--TV generation, processing it non-sequentially, non-linearly, without being confused by brief, disjointed images. From this insight came the distinct style of MTV.

But programmers are often impractical. They often let their creativity run amok and break budgets. Still another facet of Pittman's genius was his business savvy. MTV was the first basic cable network to become profitable. The record companies paid for the programming--the videos--just as they gave radio stations their records. MTV's programming content was virtually free.

The combination of business acumen and programming astuteness led to Pittman's being named CEO of the MTV networks in 1983. In this capacity, he oversaw the redesign and relaunch of Nickelodeon, the creation of VH-1 and Nick at Nite, the expansion of MTV into global markets--Europe, Australia, and Japan--and the company's 1984 initial public offering on the stock market.

In 1987 Pittman left MTV after an unsuccessful attempt to buy out the network and co-founded Quantum Media with MCA. Quantum Media produced The Morton Downey Show, a television talk show and the innovative police documentary, The Street. Quantum Media was sold to Time-Warner in 1989, and Pittman became an executive assistant to Steve Ross. In 1990 he was named CEO of Time-Warner Enterprises and took over the additional responsibil-ities of being chief executive of Six Flags amusement parks, majority owned by Time-Warner. As he did at radio stations and cable networks, he re-vitalized Six Flags, and made the company extremely profitable.

Truly one of television's visionary change masters, Bob Pittman took the TV of William S. Paley, Robert Sarnoff, and Leonard Goldenson from the Golden Age out to the cusp of the 21st century and gave a new generation of viewers what they wanted---their MTV.

-Charles Warner

 


Photo courtesy of Robert Pittman/Jay Brady Photography

ROBERT PITTMAN. Born in Jackson, Mississippi, U.S.A., 28 December 1953. Attended Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi. Married Sandy; child: Bo. Started as a 15-year old disk jockey, Jackson, Mississippi, 1968; worked in radio in Milwaukee and Detroit; program director, WPEZ-FM, Pittsburgh, 1971; program director, WMAQ-AM, Chicago, 1973; program director, WMAQ-FM, 1975; program director, WNBC-AM, 1977; producer and host, weekly video music show for NBC-owned television stations, 1978; program director, The Movie Channel, 1979; head of programming, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment; created programming for Music Television (MTV), 1981; president and chief executive officer, MTV Networks, 1983-87; co-founder of Quantum Media (with MCA), 1987; sold Quantum Media to Warner Communications, 1989; president and chief executive officer, Time-Warner Enterprises, 1988-91; president and chief executive officer, Six Flags Entertainment, 1990-95; chief executive officer, Century 21 Real Estate, since 1995; Board of Directors, America Online, since 1995.

TELEVISION SERIES

1988-89 The Morton Downey Jr. Show (syndicated)
1989-92 Totally Hidden Video

TELEVISION SPECIAL

1988 The Street

PUBLICATION

"We're Talking the Wrong Language to 'TV Babies.'" The New York Times, 24 January 1994.

FURTHER READING

"Bob Pittman." Time (New York), 7 January 1985. "50 Who Made a Difference." Advertising Age (New York), Spring 1995.

Lewis, Lisa. Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 1990.

Powers, Ron. "The Cool, Dark Telegenius of Robert Pittman." GQ--Gentleman's Quarterly. March 1989.

_______________. The Beast, The Eunuch and the Glass-Eyed Child: Television in the '80s. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990.

 

See also Music on Television; Music Television (MTV)