On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 AM, pop culture was changed forever by a new cable network that introduced a brand new idea — a TV channel that played music videos, 24/7. That network was MTV. Ironically, the first video they ever showed was "Video Killed the Radio Star" (link) by The Buggles.
The results were fantastic. In The '80s, Music Television was the iTunes, YouTube, and Spotify of the day, a revolution in pop culture and how music was enjoyed. Countless bands and artists (Madonna, Michael Jackson, Duran Duran, Cyndi Lauper, Rick Astley, and just about every Hair Metal band) saw their careers launched or furthered because of the heavy video rotation of some of their songs. If they were popular in the '80s, they were on MTV. Later in the decade, the network would also receive acclaim for devoting time to bands that played what was then called "college rock" (now known as Alternative Rock) on their 120 Minutes series, as well as Heavy Metal on Headbanger's Ball and hip-hop/rap on Yo! MTV Raps. While image, style, and appearance were important parts of the music world long before MTV (just look at David Bowie, The Beatles, or even Elvis Presley), the network's rise elevated those things into an art form almost on par with the music itself.
One unexpected result of MTV's success was the rise of British pop and rock groups in The United States. Music videos had caught on in Britain back in the mid '70s thanks to shows like Top of the Pops, giving that country a much higher music video output than the US in MTV's formative years. Most American videos in the early '80s, by contrast, were videotaped concert performances. As MTV was desperate for any music videos that it could get its hands on, it threw many of those British vids on the air to fill airtime, leading to what has been called a second British Invasion as bands saw themselves developing screaming American fanbases virtually overnight. The network also began to expand to content other than music videos, shows, and concerts when it began airing reruns of the sitcoms The Monkees and The Young Ones, both of which had a musical element.
Like any new trend in popular culture, it wouldn't be long before MTV was hit with its first criticism from both the left and the right. In its early years, it was all white.note David Bowie among others sharply criticized the network during a live 1983 interview for not playing videos by black artists. Programming directors attributed this to the fact that they were playing rocknote , primarily AOR — "album-oriented" rocknote , and that they didn't want to "cater to fringe groups."note Various former VJs and executives at MTV (including Carolyn Baker, their former head of talent and acquisition, who was herself black) have discussed the causes of this, noting on one hand that the record industry in general was giving black artists short shrift in the early '80s in the wake of the American collapse of disconote (including when it came to funding music videos); but also that MTV, which could have used its influence to rectify the situation, was instead arguably fueling the problem with its reluctance to show videos by non-white artists. In any event, Michael Jackson and Prince, with their undeniable cross-racial appealnote are often credited for laying the first cracks in MTV's color barrier (with CBS Records president Walter Yetnikoff threatening to pull all of the label's videos from MTV if they didn't show Michael). By 1984, videos by black artists were in regular rotation on the network. In 1985, meanwhile, the Hardcore Punk band Dead Kennedys released their classic "MTV Get Off the Air", attacking the young network for devaluing the importance of music and for being a corporate shill. Feminists criticized the channel's videos for their sexualized depiction of women, especially at the height of the Hair Metal and later Glam Rap booms. From the other direction, MTV's also long been a favorite whipping boy for conservative Moral Guardians, who have long felt it to be a den of filth, dangerous behavior, left-wing activism, and PoliticalOvercorrectness, leading MTV to adopt a strict policy prohibiting videos with Satanic or anti-religious themes. Of course, none of this did anything to hurt the network's popularity — famously, Bill Clinton's appearances on MTV provided a huge boost to his youth support during his Presidential campaign in 1992.
In The '90s, MTV started bringing Hip-Hop acts into regular rotation, and the grunge and Alternative Rock that had been popularized on 120 Minutes started displacing Hair Metal. Later in the decade, MTV was instrumental in the rise of Boy Bands, Girl Groups, and Idol Singers like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, TLC, Destiny's Child, the Backstreet Boys, and *NSYNC, which themselves partly displaced rock music. Eminem, brought into the fold as a Subverted Kids' Show version of a Teen Idol, beefed with the above stars while fusing Hardcore Hip Hop and Teen Pop, riding a moral panic that delivered hip-hop to white America. Grunge pressed on into Post-Grunge, with Nickelback and Creed leading the way, and Nu Metal bands like Linkin Park, Korn, and Slipknot emerged to bring a harder sound into the mainstream — and act as Gateway Music to a whole generation of metalheads no matter how loath they are to admit it. The music videos became more professional, having evolved from marketing tools to encourage album sales into the main attraction; price tags of over a million dollars for short films just three or four minutes long were not unheard of. Total Request Live, or TRL, a program where viewers got to call in and vote for their favorite music videos to air, became a sensation, turning host Carson Daly into a celebrity in his own right. It was with the launch of this show that MTV opened its famous studio in Times Square.
At the same time, a new focus was placed on pop culture in general rather than just music, following the success of non-music shows like Remote Control (MTV's first non-video program, a game show revolving around inane TV factoids), The Real World, Beavis and Butt-Head, and others. MTV still played a lot of music, just not as much as it used to. MTV became home to a variety of offbeat original live-action and animated programs, most notably the anthology program Liquid Television that spawned a number of MTV's best-remembered non-music programs from the '90s, including the MTV Movie Awards (they would add TV in 2017), Æon Flux, The Head, and the aforementioned B&B. Other shows from this era include the Sketch Comedy show The State, the Bloody Hilarious claymation show Celebrity Deathmatch, and the B&B spinoff Daria. TRL itself quickly became more focused on the Times Square studio antics than the music videos, which would in many cases only get 30 seconds of airtime. Nevertheless, for many Gen-Xers and millennials, the argument over whether the '80s or the '90s was MTV's Golden Age can be a heated one, and boils down largely to whether one prefers the purely music-driven format of the '80s or the edgy, countercultural non-music shows of the '90s. In any event, in 1996 MTV created a sister network, initially known as M2 but later known as MTV2, that would be dedicated entirely to music to answer concerns over the main network's shift in programming.
The Turn of the Millennium was when the Network Decay that had been setting in at MTV for the last decade really began to take over. Carson Daly's departure from TRL in 2003 set that show on a slow decline, finally being cancelled in 2008 (before it was revived again in 2017). Non-music-related shows took over the schedule, pushing music videos into the late night and early morning hours. Most importantly, the rise of online sources such as YouTube, iTunes, Pandora, Spotify and even MTV's own MTV Music meant that people no longer needed to watch MTV to get their music video fix, which led to MTV diverting even more hours away from music programming. One could say that the internet killed the video star. In 2010, the network officially dropped the "Music Television" subtitle.
Today, the main MTV network has all but abandoned playing music outside of special occasions like the Video Music Awards.note Even MTV2, which used to play only a few hours of music a day in the early morning hours, eventually dropped its video blocks in November 2017. Despite music videos being the first to film consistently in the format, they didn't even air any videos in High Definition until August 2012, long after rival network Fuse (which was created partly in response to MTV's decay) had converted to HD. The kids of the "MTV Generation" have grown up to have kids of their own, and the network's popularity amongst music fans has faded a great deal since its heyday in the '80s and '90s due to the aforementioned rise of online music services; the current erosion of cable ratings across the television landscape doesn't help the network's case either. To further underscore this, the channel's milestone 40th anniversary on August 1, 2021 wasn't even celebrated on the channel or social media outlets; instead the channel aired an all-day marathon of Ridiculousness, as per usual. The 40th anniversary was acknowledged and celebrated properly during the 2021 Video Music Awards, a month later.
While there are still a vocal minority of music fans holding out for the day that the "M" in MTV can become meaningful again, to deny that the network has fundamentally shaped popular culture into what it is now would be impossible. At the very least, there are several MTV "channels" on the Viacom-owned Pluto TV streaming service that are MTV-branded and play music videos all day.
After the 2006 Viacom-CBS split, MTV, like its fellow cable networks, went to the ownership of the second Viacom. When they (re)merged in 2019, MTV was placed under its Domestic Media Networks division. The larger MTV Entertainment Group also operates Comedy Central, CMT, Logo TV, Paramount Network, Pop TV, the Smithsonian Channel, and TV Land, in addition to MTV and its sister channels.
See also MuchMusic, a similar Canadian network that previously launched an American feed, now known as Fuse.note
Series that have aired on MTV:
- 16 and Pregnant (2009-14, 2020-present)
- Teen Mom (2009-12, 2015-present)
- The Andy Milonakis Show (2005-07; season 1 was aired on MTV while the rest were aired on MTV2)
- Awkward. (2011-16)
- Bamimation (2008; failed pilot)
- The Ben Stiller Show (1990-91)
- The Brothers Grunt (1994-95)
- Cartoon Sushi (1997-98)
- Catfish: The TV Show (2012-present)
- Celebrity Deathmatch (1998-2002, 2006-07; the revival was aired on MTV2)
- Clone High (2003-04)
- Crank Yankers (2007; aired on MTV2)
- Dead at 21 (1994)
- Deadtime Stories (2003; failed pilot)
- Demi Lovato Stay Strong (2012)
- Downtown (1999)
- Eye Candy (2015)
- Faking It (2014-16)
- Finding Carter (2014-15)
- Girl Code (2013-15; a revival was streamed on Snapchat in 2017)
- Good Vibes (2011)
- The Head (1994-96)
- Headbanger's Ball (1987-95, 2003-12; the revival was aired on MTV2)
- Jackass (2000-02)
- Jersey Shore (2009-12)
- Geordie Shore (2011-present; aired on MTV UK)
- Kidnapped (2002)
- Laguna Beach (2004-06)
- The Hills (2006-10)
- Liquid Television (1991-95; a revival was streamed online in 2014)
- The Maxx (1995)
- Migraine Boy (1996)
- The Monkees (1986 reruns; originally aired on NBC)
- MTV Live (2006-12; aired on MTV Canada)
- My Super Sweet Sixteen (2005-11 2015, 2017)
- Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica (2003-05)
- Pimp My Ride (2004-07)
- Punk'd (2003-07, 2012; a revival was aired on BET in 2015)
- The Real World (1992-2017; a revival was streamed on Facebook Watch in 2019)
- Remote Control (1987-90)
- Ridiculousness (2011-present)
- Scream (2015-16; moved to VH1 for its third season)
- The Shannara Chronicles (2016; moved to Spike for its second season)
- The Sifl and Olly Show (1998-99)
- Singled Out (1995-98; a revival was streamed on YouTube in 2018)
- Skins (2011; the American remake)
- South Park (reruns on MTV UK)
- Spider-Man: The New Animated Series (2003)
- Spy Groove (2000-02)
- Stankervision (2005-06; aired on MTV2)
- The State (1993-95)
- Station Zero (1999)
- Sweet/Vicious (2016-17)
- Teen Wolf (2011-17)
- The Tom Green Show (1999-2000)
- Trashed (1994)
- True Life (1998-2017)
- Undergrads (2001)
- Undressed (1999-2002)
- Wonder Showzen (2005-06; aired on MTV2)
- Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous (2013)
MTV's sister networks (for the U.S at least) include
- MTV2: Initially focused on music videos, then became fixated on Alternative Rock and Hip-Hop. MTV2 now serves primarily as a sitcom repeat farm, with a particular focus on black sitcoms aimed at young adult men. The network also airs encores of MTV programming and formerly produced a small amount of original programming.
- MTVu: A channel that showcases indie rock, Pop Punk and hip-hop music videos and was usually seen on college campuses (with a few cable homes here and there.)
- MTV Live: An HD channel providing high quality music content. Originally known as Music: High Definition from 2006-2008, and later Palladia from 2008-2016. It is not to be confused with either the original American show (one of the precursors to TRL) or the Canadian show of the same name.
- MTV Classic: Originally a throwback channel that featured older MTV programming and music videos, both primarily from the 1990s, but is now dedicated solely to the latter. Before 2016, it was VH1 Classic, which focused on older music (and occasionally new music from classic artists) primarily from the 1970s and 1980s.
- MTV Hits: A spinoff that shows music videos exclusively, mostly pop artists. Rebranded as the teen-targeted NickMusic in October 2016.
- MTV Jams: Same as MTV Hits and U, but focusing on Urban-genre music. It replaced the rock-oriented MTVX and later became a BET-branded channel on October 5, 2015.
- Tr3s: An MTV spinoff focusing on Latino culture.
- VH1: Initially focused on older adults, then as a more video-oriented MTV, and then, most (in)famously, as a home for slightly less shallow nostalgia-based programming. Today, VH1 is essentially an African American-centric general entertainment channel.
- VH1 Soul: A channel mostly devoted to soul, R&B and funk music. The channel re-aligned itself with BET on December 28, 2015.