Thinking Outside the Box: The Rise and Fall of The Box

Posted June 5, 2014 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Music television you control was its theme. But things at the viewer-programmed music video network eventually got out of control

The idea of taking down music video giant MTV always seemed so impracticable, but many have tried.

Remember the pay-per-call television network The Box? If you weren’t born in the Eighties and wasn’t hip to music video, chances are that you don’t remember this certain phenomenon. But at the peak of its powers, when it dominated basic channel programming in the early ’90’s with its jukebox-style format, it was MTV’s biggest threat. Sure, VH1 battled against MTV for a minute, but the network was designed to piggyback on the successes of MTV. Since its initial start to now, VH1 has always been maintained by MTV’s parent company – first Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, now Viacom. But VH1 suffered a bit of a ratings slump in the early ’90’s, giving The Box an advantage to rocket its way to success.

Most importantly, The Box was not only accessible on cable television; it was also available on smaller, crummy, weaker UHF dials presented on basic television. That didn’t matter with viewers. The chance for ordinary people to watch their favorite musicians in the fashionable world of concept videos was seen as a privilege, particularly those who did not pay for cable services. This advantage allowed The Box to make landfall in a number of atypical markets.

The Box originally started out in the 1980’s in Miami, Florida as Video Jukebox Network. It was later shortened to The Box and quickly escalated past its humble beginnings. The format allowed locals to call the station using a 1-800 line service and to enter a code that was usually presented on the tube for video selection. The need to make money weighed heavily on the network, forcing them to change to a 1-900 line service. Charging “customers” $1.00 for each video ($3.99 for three) would be their money maker and would define their basic plan of revenue. The idea took off.

When the paid request lines opened up officially on December 19,1985 to 20,000 cable subscribers in the Miami area, the first video requested would be Appollonia’s “Sex Shooter.” True story.

By the early ’90’s, The Box was viewable by 20 million households in 50 markets across the U.S., UK and Puerto Rico, targeting an audience between the ages of 12 and 29. Each region had its own well-crafted selection with some areas engulfed with emerging hard rock and others with boombastic underground hip-hop. By 1995, the network made a super leap into the unknown dimensions of the World Wide Web when they teamed up with interactive entertainment developer On Ramp, Inc. and landed their own domain (, making The Box the first TV network to go live on the Internet.

Les Garland, former program director at MTV, knew the in’s and out’s of the popular music video paradigm.  When he stepped on board The Box in 1990, he brought with him a world of knowledge and an idea to take the fledgling network to the masses. Stepping out of semi-retirement, Garland was attracted to the many possibilities The Box had in changing music television for the better. “What attracted me to The Box was that it played into my theories about how to succeed in modern television,” he told Billboard magazine in 1995. “I believe the mandatory ingredients are entertainment, information, innovation and differentiation. The Box had all of that. Back in 1990, when I saw The Box technology, it became even more apparent to me where television was headed. The Box could take what we at MTV had defined as music television in the Eighties and bring it to another level.”




Garland also believed in changing how people saw music television by believing that “viewer-programmed television” could carve out niches that were ignored by traditional radio and other music video channels. “When we first launched, the entire library of videos available in the universe were rock ‘n roll,” says John Robson, former VP of The Box’s programming. “Latin, country and rap clips just didn’t exist. So there was no differentiation between us and MTV.”

But as the taste buds of music lovers changed and more music choices became accessible, so did music television. The Box was the first to capitalize on these moments in the 1990’s, particularly when hip-hop first bubbled on the mainstream. “One day we hit pay dirt and got videos from Run D.M.C., the Fat Boys and Grandmaster Flash,” says Robson. “The phone lit up. It went from call coming in now and then, to boom, boom, boom, boom. Rap helped us generate an initial call base.”

The explosion of hip-hop dominated the course of The Box’ reign and pressured MTV to get on board and feature more programming suited for this new boom of industry. Yo! MTV Raps premiered in 1988, but it wasn”t enough to satisfy that audience. With The Box, rap fans could view their favorite rap stars at any given time just by calling the 1-900 number. A wait period of twenty minutes was the usual for call-in requests. At times, the “box” of phone lines for their system would be jammed.

At its peak, The Box was instrumental in the success of breakout acts across a world of alt-rock, metal, hip-hop and R&B. It also allowed viewers to order videos of acts that MTV generally locked out, giving unknown pop singer Britney Spears the opportunity to be heard with “Baby One More Time.” Months later, MTV added the video to their playlist and rest was history. “One of my most satisfying accomplishments since joining The Box is watching the consumers discover new talent; 8 million phone calls per year have contributed to the phenomenal success of so many performers,” Garland said. “Toni Braxton, Bones-Thugs-n-Harmony, Mary J. Blige, Adina Howard, Brandy, TLC, Dr. Dre, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Green Day, Nine Inch Nails are some of them.”




There were many moments in the network’s storyline when they almost collapsed. Botched deals with cable operators, and bad stock market days almost took The Box into an irreversible abyss. “There were lots of dark memories,” Les Garland said. “This company has had at least three lives. There were many times the industry closed the coffin on us, and we just kept coming back.”

But the coffin eventually closed on The Box, at a time when music videos was just being viewed as a visual replacement of the radio single and were no longer seen by the mainstream to be inventive works of art. By the end of the decade, music television was at a crossroads. Ratings for video programming was down. Network superpower Viacom acquired MTV and VH1 and bought out The Box, essentially eliminating all competition in the markets. Viacom even purchased their black competitor, BET.

The Box title was dropped and changed into MTV2, sealing the doom of the public-programmed philosophy. MTV2 plays more videos than its parent channel, but the call-in video request format is all gone. The Box only lives on in memory, but some people are keeping its remnants alive. In 2010, SWRV, a channel created by the entertainment company Music Choice, made its debut. It’s a shell when compared with the mammoth success of The Box, but there’s enough momentum there to keep the lid of the coffin cracked.

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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