On Aug. 1, 1981 at 12:01 a.m. the world of cable television gave birth to a new phenomenon that would revolutionize popular culture and the public’s knowledge of music and entertainment. At the time, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States, Prince Charles and Lady Diana had recently wed and Music Television was about to bring music to television.
Thirty years later, Americans are under the leadership of President Barack Obama, captivated by a brand new royal couple and still enthused by all that MTV brings to television. Throughout its three decades of production, MTV has promoted music, introduced the artists behind classic songs, premiered iconic music videos and captured viewers’ interest with reality TV shows.
MTV’s first broadcast images were of the Apollo 11 launch, after the channel’s block letter logo appeared with a guitar riff playing and the announcement, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” The film of the lunar landing gave way to MTV’s use of the “moon man.”
In the ’80s, MTV’s primary focus was the actual artists and their music, as MTV became the headquarters for the tunes and music videos of stars such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, The Police and Cyndi Lauper. Music videos, most notably Michael Jackson’s iconic video for “Thriller,” brought a visual aspect to songs and became an MTV staple. The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first music video ever played on MTV. Through MTV, artists gained exposure, and viewers could see what their favorite musicians actually looked like.
The MTV Video Music Awards premiered in 1984 at Radio City Music Hall and included a live performance of Madonna’s “Like a Virgin.” Five years later the first edition of MTV Unplugged aired in 1989. In the same year, “Yo! MTV Raps” brought hip-hop and rap music to television.
MTV also introduced non-music video programming in the late ’80s. A channel originally designed to play music videos 24/7 guided by video jockeys, began incorporating programs such as “The Week in Rock,” “MTV News” and the game show “Remote Control.”
The ’90s saw the arrival of reality shows on MTV, beginning with the debut of “The Real World” and “Road Rules.” Shows of the late ’90s such as “Jackass,” “Real World/Road Rules Challenge” and “Undressed” focused on themes of pranks, comedy, drama and game show vibes. Animated shows like “Beavis and Butthead” also brought a new, non-musical dimension to MTV.
Following criticism for a lack of music videos, MTV premiered “Total Request Live,” a daily top-ten countdown, in 1997. “TRL” was filmed in Times Square and combined “Total Request” and “MTV Live.” The show achieved great popularity under original host Carson Daly and allowed for greater viewer participation.
In the last 11 years, MTV has begun to air programming that both parallels shows from previous MTV lineups, as well as brand new concepts. A variety of reality and dating shows now dominate MTV. From “Punk’d” and “The Osbournes” to “The Hills,” as well as “Date My Mom” and “Jersey Shore,” there is something for everyone in the MTV reality world.
Topics that were once thought of as off-limits are also discussed on MTV. “Teen Mom” and “16 and Pregnant” have shed light on teen pregnancy within real life circumstances. “Made” and “True Life” have exposed other challenges faced by many people and provided examples of how to rise above obstacles and change lives.
Though the music is not as prevalent as it once was, MTV has continued to thrive and expand its array of programming. “TRL” ended with “Total Finale Live” in November of 2008, but the MTV Hits and MTV Jams channels still air music videos all day, every day. Additionally, the launches of MTV2 and MTV Tr3s have provided forums for hip-hop advocates, rap lovers and fans of Latin music alike.
Over the past 30 years, much has changed in the world of music television, but one thing has remained constant ““ people still want their MTV. As we look forward to the future of MTV we can only wonder how the network will top The Situation, feuding frenemies and star-studded award shows.