Twelve Crucial Moments in the Evolution of MTV

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On its 30th birthday, we track the ups and downs, from The Buggles to Jersey Shore.

MTV turns thirty this week, but it’s unlikely that anniversary scares them as much as it worries us. In fact, they seem to be doing rather well for themselves, yet many of us would say they’d gone downhill. Join us as we take a look at the company’s evolution from scrappy cable underdog to monolithic media titan.


1. MTV starts broadcasting: August 1, 1981, 12:01am 

Just after midnight on a warm night in August, MTV started their broadcast with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” and then played their semi-bitchin’ theme song. It’s well-known at this point that the first music video aired on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, but lesser-known that the second video was Pat Benatar’s much better “You Better Run.” Other notes: on its premiere, the channel was only visible to a few thousand people on a single cable system in northern New Jersey, and there were visible black screens between videos when an employee had to insert a new tape into a VCR. It’s funny that MTV’s start-up sounds like the project of some earnest, “analog-only” hipster with a public-access program — humble roots when you consider the fact that they’ve solidly become “the Man” in just thirty years. They didn’t sell out, kids, they bought in.


2. “Billie Jean” breaks the color barrier: 1983    

“Billie Jean” hit MTV in 1983, breaking a unofficial color barrier — executives thought music videos by black artists weren't “rock” enough for inclusion on the network. Michael Jackson’s iconic video (and that amazing toe-stand) shattered the barrier, leading the way for other zeitgeist-defining music videos by black artists, like Billy Ocean’s “Get Out of My Dreams (And Into My Car)” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long," not to mention unofficial Nerve-office anthem, Eddie Murphy’s “Party All the Time.” Ironically, in light of today's refrain that the channel's become rap and hip-hop dominated at the expense of rock, for its first several years, MTV was a pasty land filled with skinny ties and pointy guitars.


3. The first VMAs: September 14, 1984   

MTV’s first Video Music Awards aired in 1984. Hosted by Dan Akyroyd and Bette Midler (really? wow), the night’s big winner was Herbie Hancock (really? wow), who took home five Moonmen for “Rockit,” followed by Michael Jackson, who netted three for “Thriller.” “Video of the Year” went to The Cars for their video for “You Might Think,” featuring the indelible (and horrifying) image of Ric Ocasek as a fly. Madonna did her famous performance of “Like a Virgin" with the wedding dress and the writhing and such, and Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield” was snubbed by Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” an injustice that rankles to this day. Still, MTV was starting to carve out an identity as an arbiter of musical taste — though their early attempts were aimed at casting a wide net (Bette Midler and Herbie Hancock?), the VMAs were an indicator that  that MTV was gathering momentum as an influential force in the music industry.


4. 120 Minutes premieres: March 10, 1986    

For the first few years of programming — back when MTV was still shooting for alternative-music cred — you could still see artists ranging from The Jesus and Mary Chain to Kate Bush to They Might Be Giants on 120 Minutes. Later, the show was increasingly bumped around by reruns of The Real World and Undressed. It died an ignominious death in 2000 before being resurrected in 2001 on MTV2 and killed for good in 2003. It’s since been slated to return with famous host Matt "Uncle Fester" Pinfield, whose unabashed geekery and encyclopedic knowledge of all things rock was a large part of the show’s charm. 120 Minutes was an important look into the burgeoning “underground” rock scene of the 1980s that can variously be interpreted as the roots of indie, college rock, lo-fi, or grunge in general, and it showed that MTV at one point had its finger on the pulse of more scenes than people initially thought.


5.The launch of MTV Unplugged: November 26, 1989  

Besides offering a new, hip, synonym for “acoustic,” Unplugged offered a venue for artists to explore their undiscovered sensitive sides, especially in the case of LL Cool J, whose acoustic — excuse me — unplugged rendition of “Mama Said Knock You Out” is surprisingly aggressive and sweaty. Other notable Unplugged appearances included Eric Clapton, (the re-arranged versions of Clapton's hits would prove to be the show’s biggest success story, selling over ten million copies) and Nirvana, whose performance consisted mostly of covers. The latter show was filmed five months before Kurt Cobain’s death, and its lily-adorned stage, hushed mood and quietly devastating versions of “All Apologies” and traditional blues song “Where Did you Sleep Last Night” were eerily prescient.


6. MTV starts crediting directors, 1992     

Under pressure by the Music Video Production Association, MTV started naming directors in 1992. The result was that viewers were suddenly familiar with names like Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and David Fincher, all of whom went from ad work and music videos into feature films. What followed was the rise of the “art video” — a deviation from the standard “band performs” or “band performs with girls” concepts that had inundated the channel up to that point. Now we had Jonze’s “Sabotage” for the Beastie Boys, or Gondry’s surrealistic “Everlong” for Foo Fighters. These videos built on the epic, short-film feel of early frontrunners like John Landis’s video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and showed that the music video was a unique art form that could function as such, sometimes proving more memorable than the song itself.


7. Puck & Pedro fight on The Real World, May 21, 1994  

Currently the longest-running program in MTV’s history and one of the longest-running reality shows in history, The Real World has always been credited (or blamed) with launching the modern reality TV genre. Early on, the show was lauded for its realistic depiction of youth culture and the earnestness with which it approached hot-button topics of the day, like sexuality, prejudice, and substance abuse. The third season featured AIDS activist Pedro Zamora, who was one of the first openly gay men with AIDS to be portrayed in popular media — his conflicts with grating bike messenger Puck became emblematic of the problems faced by GLBT individuals in American society. Gradually, the show turned into a venue for various sexual and drunken escapades (the triple-kiss!) that eroded all the credit it had built up and served only to offer increasingly sad sacrifices to the television gods. (Trishelle Canatella, we hardly knew ye.)


8. Bill Clinton on MTV: April, 1994       

For a while, Bill Clinton was unstoppable. His appearance on The Arsenio Hall Show two years earlier, earnestly honking his way through “Heartbreak Hotel” on sax while wearing Wayfarers before they were cool, was one thing, but it was an MTV-sponsored forum, Enough is Enough, that provided a truly great soundbite for the Commander-in-Chief. Laetitia Thompson, seventeen, of Potomac, MD, got on the mic and asked the immortal, unifying question: “Boxers or briefs?” After the laughter died down, Clinton didn’t shy from the question: “Usually briefs,” he said, laughing, “I can’t believe she asked that.” The moment solidified the president as an ally to Generation X, and marked a defining power-behind-the-throne moment for MTV.


9. The premiere of Daria: March 3, 1997      

Daria, a spin-off of Mike Judge’s ubiquitous Beavis and Butt-head premiered on March 3, 1997, about nine months before the two idiots ended their original run. By 1998, Daria was one of MTV’s highest-rated shows — the network’s manager Van Toffler touted her as “a good spokesperson for MTV, intelligent but subversive.” The show’s ennui-drenched '90s tone reflected a very specific moment in the zeitgeist, and though funny, seems singularly dated in way that Beavis and Butt-head isn’t. Today the smart, shy, girl-nerd with the acerbic wit is an archetype that spans mediums, but Daria was one of the progenitors.


10. The Backstreet Boys shut down Times Square on TRL: 1998   

Total Request Live, a show created to address the concern that MTV was playing less and less actual music, debuted on September 14, 1998 and ran for a little over ten years. It introduced the world to stunningly charisma-free white person Carson Daly, who rapidly aged out of his target audience’s demographic and graduated to hosting a (somehow still-running) talk show. TRL re-affirmed MTVs relevance to pop music; the show was responsible for cementing the commercial success of *NSync, The Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears, among others. A dubious honor, but hard to ignore.  


11. Meet The Osbournes: March 5, 2002      

Though MTV’s first foray into reality TV was The Real World, their reliance on the format ramped up in the early 2000s with shows like Fear, The Osbournes, Punk’d, Pimp My Ride, and Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica. Besides introducing the world to any number of amusing-then-irritating tropes (like “Bubbles, Sharon? I’m the Prince of fuckin’ Darkness,” “Is this chicken, what I have, or is this tuna?”), the wave of shows further drowned any presence music had on MTV. The tide (and this nautical metaphor) continued with Laguna Beach, Viva La Bam, The Hills, and My Super Sweet 16, in 2005 and 2006, all of which were mere eddies compared to the tsunami that lay ahead (I warned you!). They also prompted Justin Timberlake to tell the network to “play more damn videos” in an acceptance speech at the 2007 VMAs.


12. Jersey Shore's third-season premiere gets eight million viewers, Jan 5, 2011  

Jersey Shore, or The Real World minus its redeeming qualities, premiered December 3, 2009. While loosely following the concept of Real World, Jersey Shore amped it up by offering some casual, old-timey racism (the toothlessly pejorative term for Italians, “guido,” was bandied about like mad in the original promotional materials and by the cast) and the debauched comings and goings of a group of people who were hilariously unaware that the average viewer found them reprehensible. The show started slowly, but eventually became MTV’s most viewed series telecast ever, amidst a never-ending trainwreck of new controversies (Snooki gets punched! Ronnie punches someone!) and controversy. The third-season premiere was a record-holder, with eight-million viewers turning in to see a new cast member (Deena, who was a carbon copy of Snooki, albeit with a somehow stupider name), and a girl fight between surgically-enhanced JWoww and resident “self-identified nice girl who everyone hates” Sammi. Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.