Is MTV’s ‘120 Minutes’ Still Necessary?

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In the wee hours of Sunday morning, MTV2 welcomed back 120 Minutes, the late-night, alt- and indie-rock showcase that ran from 1986 to 2003. No one seemed happier about its return that Matt Pinfield, who hosted the series from 1995 through ’99 and resumed his duties as MTV’s resident music geek (you’d think they’d have more than one) with an episode that included interviews with Dave Grohl, PJ Harvey, Lupe Fiasco, Kings of Leon, and Danger Mouse, among others.

As a fan of the original show, I used to stay up past my bedtime in the mid-’90s watching it with the sound turned down so low it was barely audible — which means that I can’t deny the pleasure of watching it again. Although some elements struck me as clunky (the decision to shoot the show at Arlene’s Grocery, of all New York City venues; the throwaway segments before and after commercials, including one that collected supposedly interesting tweets by musicians like Tyler, the Creator and Neon Indian), it was gratifying to see some of my favorite current indie bands — Sleigh Bells, Dom, the Black Angels, even JEFF the Brotherhood — get some time in the cable spotlight. And yet, as I watched videos that I had seen months (Cults’ “Abducted”) or years (Das Racist’s “Rainbow in the Dark”) earlier on the internet, I had to wonder whether 120 Minutes is still performing any kind of vital function.

The online video revolution didn’t take place until after the show aired its final episode: Vimeo was founded in November of 2004, and the first YouTube video was uploaded in April 2005. It took another few years (and music’s incremental disappearance from MTV and VH1’s lineups, replaced by Jersey Shore and “Celebreality”) for the internet to replace TV as the intended medium for clips by everyone from obscure, unsigned bands to Lady Gaga. These days, most highly anticipated music videos premiere on artists’ website or sites like Pitchfork and Stereogum.

Even for previously unknown artists, the internet can be a much more effective place to gain exposure than a late-night show on MTV2. Take Kreayshawn, for example: like it or not, her “Gucci Gucci” video has now topped eight million views. To put it that number in perspective, only about five million people watched any given episode of Parks and Recreation last season. The ratings aren’t in for the first episode of 120 Minutes yet, but a series airing that late on a weekend night on cable would be lucky to top 500,000 viewers. (When TeenNick’s similarly nostalgic The ’90s Are All That programming block debuted to an audience of 550,000 last week, the ratings were celebrated as a major coup for the network.)

As much fun as it is to watch, the only thing that separates 120 Minutes from something a talented kid with good taste in music could edit together is the artist interviews. Unfortunately, MTV2 has chopped these segments into unsatisfyingly short tidbits, with Pinfield directing viewers to the show’s website to see more. It would have been nice to see longer conversations with more interesting musicians (Harvey, perhaps, or Das Racist) and less time wasted packing in irrelevant sit-downs with guys like Zach Braff, whose taste in music we’re still supposed to care about seven years after Garden State. I got the feeling that 120 Minutes‘ new, faster pace — its split-second interviews and silly “guess the musician” games — reflected an attempt to engage with today’s multitasking teens and 20-somethings. That’s a shame, because some of my fondest memories of the show involve sprawling, often frankly bizarre, conversations between the bands and the host.

To survive in its current, monthly format, 120 Minutes is going to need to give us more true exclusives: not just revealing interviews but also video premieres and unique, well-shot in-studio performances (why film at a music venue when you’re not going to use the stage?). Instead of wasting time rehashing “classic” videos from alt-rock’s heyday (this week brought Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Radiohead’s “Just,” and Foo Fighters’ “Everlong”) that we can watch on YouTube whenever we want, why not send a reporter out to film a quick segment introducing viewers to a new musical movement or local scene we might not know about?

For the most part, I enjoyed watching 120 Minutes, and that’s a higher compliment than I can pay to almost anything else on MTV in 2011. But to really make the show a force in independent music again, the network and Pinfield need to limit the nostalgia and give us something we’re not getting anywhere else. Here’s hoping they work out the kinks so we won’t have to say another good-bye to this beloved series.

Watch the entire episode below: