120 Minutes was, in various formats, MTV’s premier alternative music video series in the United States. The program originally aired on MTV from 1986 to 2000, then on MTV2 from 2001 to 2003, when MTV2 replaced it with its one-time successor, Subterranean. In 2011, MTV2 resurrected the program briefly as 120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield. Here, we outline the full history of the long-running series.
February 19, 2013
Introducing 120 Minutes
In 1986, MTV designed a show called 120 Minutes, which was created to play 2 hours of light-rotation videos each week. MTV hired Dave Kendall to produce the show. Kendall took the opportunity to launch an upstart series that would introduce college radio style music to MTV’s audience.
120 Minutes premiered on March 10, 1986, at 1 a.m. on MTV, hosted by J.J. Jackson, the venerable and beloved late VJ. This late Sunday night time slot would be the home of the program for the next 17 years.
In the early years of 120 Minutes, MTV tried out a number of hosts, including Alan Hunter, Downtown Julie Brown, Carolyne Heldman, and Kevin Seal. MTV continued to experiment with the program’s format during this time. Finally, in 1989, producer Dave Kendall became the first “solid” host, Jim Shearer said.
During his tenture as host, Kendall guided viewers through the late ’80s college rock landscape, which was largely inspired by trends happening in the UK at the time. This blender of post-punk, goth, industrial, and jangle-rock gave way after a few years to a coalesced grunge movement — Nirvana’s legendary “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video premiered on 120 Minutes in 1991, spearheading a revolution in the early to mid ’90s that turned “alternative” into a brand for the first time.
After Kendall left 120 Minutes in 1992, he was followed by many other hosts over the next 11 years. Lewis Largent and rotating guest hosts picked up hosting duties for the rest of the early ’90s until MTV selected Kendall’s permanent replacement.
In 1995, Matt Pinfield officially began hosting 120 Minutes. Over the next 4 years, he became known as a walking music encyclopedia and remembered as the most recognizable host of the series to viewers who grew up in the ’90s.
Pinfield’s original run as host of 120 Minutes from 1995 to 1999 was marked by the rise and fall of alternative rock as a mainstream top 40 trend. Post-grunge bands, left of center singer-songwriters, west coast ska-inspired bands, and alternative hip hop acts also joined the 120 Minutes playlist during this time. But by the end of these crucial years, the music industry was changing — and so was MTV.
From MTV to MTV2
MTV2 (known as M2 until 2000), a sister channel to MTV designed to play a 24/7 freeform mix of music videos, debuted on Thursday, August 1, 1996.
While 120 Minutes remained on MTV for about 4 years after M2’s debut, the purpose of the show had become muddled by the late ’90s. Top 40 and the Alternative Nation parted ways, and much of MTV’s daytime programming was taken over by an emerging wave of bubblegum pop — in the era of TRL, the future of 120 Minutes on MTV was uncertain.
These changing trends left 120 Minutes as less of a light-rotation indie video show and more of MTV’s de facto rock show, aside from Pinfield’s short-lived daily series MattRock, until another nightly series named The Return Of The Rock premiered in 1999.
But at that time, “rock” was a polarized wasteland of uninspired nü metal rap-rock and pop-punk — perhaps reaching its nadir at Woodstock ’99, the rock festival turned disaster that MTV News covered extensively that year. Whatever had become of “alternative”, “rock”, and MTV was so far away from the intended purpose of 120 Minutes that it was time for Pinfield to depart and for the series to be rethought elsewhere.
After several years of being on MTV and M2 for a combined total of 10 to 15 hours a day, Matt Pinfield left MTV in 1999. Other guest hosts, most notably Dave Holmes, picked up hosting duties for the remainder of the decade into 2000.
In 2000, MTV began preempting 120 Minutes with Real World, Road Rules, Loveline, Undressed, and other shows. After a few “ghost town” episodes of 120 Minutes during the spring and summer of 2000, the last episode on MTV aired in September.
120 Minutes moved to MTV2 as part of its January 1, 2001, relaunch. MTV2 picked up where MTV left off, returning 120 Minutes to a more experimental, indie label driven, groundbreaking style that MTV2 viewers had come to expect at the time, although without the fanfare and viewership it once had on MTV. The reimagined program coincided with a bustling indie scene that had reemerged after the dark ages of the late ’90s. More contemplative singer-songwriters shared the spotlight alongside a garage rock revival and a new wave of electronic music.
Hosts of the show on MTV2 included Jancee Dunn, Chris Booker, and finally Jim Shearer, who began hosting in March 2002 and continued as the host until the finale of the original 17-year run of the series on May 4, 2003.
MTV2 cancels 120 Minutes
In its time on MTV2, 120 Minutes had returned to its roots, featuring weekly guests and music videos from indie, underground bands. On a few special occasions in 2003, live performances made a return to the series, such as with Tegan and Sara.
Throughout 2002 and 2003, 120 Minutes became pushed further into the night on MTV2, moving from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m. ET. Rumors of the program’s cancellation started in late April 2003 on the MTV2.com message board. Those rumors were more-or-less confirmed during the last segment of the April 27, 2003, episode, in which host Shearer told viewers to tune in for a “very special” edition of 120 Minutes the following week.
This website (then called “The unofficial 120 Minutes site”) was, for better or worse, the only place on the Internet for viewers to learn definitively about the cancellation of 120 Minutes. MTV2 did not maintain an official website for the series at the time, and MTV had left its 120 Minutes website abandoned since 2000.
The 120 Minutes series finale aired the night of Sunday, May 4, 2003, at 1 a.m. ET, hosted by Jim Shearer alongside the two “pillars” of the long-running series, Dave Kendall and Matt Pinfield. They helped him send off the original 17-year run of the series, which was then thought to be the end of the program for good.
An extended version of Jim Shearer’s interview with Dave and Matt, never seen on TV, was later published exclusively here at The 120 Minutes Archive.
Just 5 days after its cancellation, on Friday, May 9, 2003, the legacy of 120 Minutes continued on with the premiere of the program’s intended successor, Subterranean on MTV2, which was also hosted by Jim Shearer until 2007.
As we knew it, Subterranean was MTV2’s official replacement for and modern-day successor to MTV’s flagship alternative series, 120 Minutes. It premiered the night of Friday, May 9, 2003, at midnight ET, just 5 days after the cancellation and series finale of 120 Minutes on MTV2.
When Subterranean started in 2003, it was billed as the next generation of 120 Minutes. The idea was to take the classic MTV template and apply it to the next generation of alternative music. The series was hosted by Jim Shearer and featured interviews with indie label artists and bands every week until 2007. It aired first on Friday nights and then later on Sunday nights.
Subterranean was the flagship mid-2000s iteration of the alternative music show in that classic MTV format — the host, the interviews with bands and artists, live performances and such, in between music videos. For almost 4 years, Subterranean stayed true to that format with host Jim Shearer at the helm. However, all good things must come to an end — MTV2 stopped producing the show at the end of 2006, abruptly ending the era of the fake basement on Subterranean.
In February 2007, MTV2 fired its studio production staff and converted all of its remaining music shows into pure video blocks. No hosts, no band interviews, just music videos and commercials. Terrible, low-budget ringtone commercials.
Sitting through 20 minutes of those late night commercials only to see a handful of seemingly random music videos did not make any sense in 2007. Subterranean no longer felt like a show; it was reduced to a “ghost town” like MTV in 2000. Segments with guests, if featured at all, were done in a monologue format with no host.
Jim Shearer himself stopped by The 120 Minutes Archive to answer all kinds of questions while MTV2 was undergoing the format change in 2007. We compiled all the questions and his answers into a special feature, Jim Shearer Q&A.
Regardless, MTV2 continued to air the Subterranean hour through 2011, albeit with a shuffle of time slots that saw the block moved from Sunday night, to Tuesdays and Thursdays, to early Wednesday morning. MTV2 began posting the videos and guest segments, if any, at MTV.com for more convenient viewing.
120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield
With the remains of Subterranean languishing in the graveyard slot on MTV2, it was somewhat of a shocker that MTV announced in March 2011 that they would bring back 120 Minutes as a monthly program on MTV2, with an online counterpart, 120 Seconds. They also brought back the show’s biggest star, Matt Pinfield.
120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield, as the program was rechristened, debuted in the super-late slot of Saturday, July 30, 2011, at 1 a.m. ET on MTV2.
Reinvented as a monthly show, 120 Minutes was overhauled for its new incarnation. In addition to music videos, each episode would feature somewhere between 7 and 14 different interviews with a variety of big names, emerging artists, and industry friends.
The new program continued the trend started by the 2001 iteration of 120 Minutes on MTV2 by featuring a diverse variety of indie music that went well beyond the alternative rock genre that the original MTV series made famous in the ’90s.
Although we would have liked to see the program airing on the main MTV channel and/or in a better time slot, we appreciated that Matt Pinfield and crew made a legitimate effort to put on an entertaining, intelligent show that was packed to the brim with compelling content for fans of indie music of all genres.
In 2011, between DVR recordings and full episodes online at MTV Hive, people had plenty of options to catch 120 Minutes with Matt Pinfield. But even a reinvented, modern music video program was no match for the inevitable gauntlet of ratings troubles and budget cuts that plagued 120 Minutes since the late ’90s.
After just 4 monthly episodes, MTV2 backtracked and rescheduled 120 Minutes as a traditional weekly program on Friday mornings as part of its AMTV2 block of music videos, beginning November 18, 2011. Despite the program still bearing his name, Matt Pinfield himself was largely absent from the show beginning May 18, 2012, reappearing only once for an MTV EMA special in November 2012.
120 Minutes sailed off into the sunset once again in MTV’s all too familiar “ghost town” format as a simple block of music videos — no host, no guests. The last new episode catalogued at MTV Hive aired January 25, 2013, at 7 a.m. ET on MTV2.
MTV2 removed 120 Minutes from its schedule and replaced it with a similar 2-hour block of music videos titled “Artists to Watch” beginning February 8, 2013.
A moment for us
What a strange trip it has been since 2003, when The 120 Minutes Archive first hit the Internet. In what was incredibly bad luck at the time, we launched about a month before 120 Minutes on MTV2 was cancelled. Now, we’ve stuck around long enough — 10 years! — to see another incarnation of the series come and go.
Join us at the home page of The 120 Minutes Archive for our definitive library of music video nostalgia that spans more than 25 years of Music Television, from one of the first episodes of 120 Minutes in 1986 to the very last one in 2013.