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" by The Buggles.
The results were fantastic. In The '80s, MTV 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, 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 Headbangers 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 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. In its early years, it was targeted for not playing many black artists, and David Bowie criticized the network during a live 1983 interview for not playing such videos. That eventually ended once Michael Jackson and Prince became superstars. Later, in 1985, 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 videos the channel aired for their sexualized depiction of women. 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 political correctness. 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. 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 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 now 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. Indeed, The Limousines say so. In 2010, the network officially dropped the "Music Television" subtitle.
A notable failure during this time was the network's coverage of the Live 8 Benefit Concert in 2005; Cameras would frequently interrupt performances midway to cut back to the presenters, many of which whom would get the title of the event confused and make them look ignorant (hosts alternated between Live Aid, Live 8, or Live Aid 8). This went from annoying to unacceptable when they did this halfway through a re-united Pink Floyd playing "Comfortably Numb", the last time the band would play together live. MTV was flooded with so many complaints they agreed to re-air the entire concert unedited without presenters, but the damage was done.
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, the network's popularity amongst music fans has faded a great deal since its heyday in the '80s and '90s, and the current erosion of cable ratings across the television landscape doesn't help the network's case either. It was enough, however, to inspire numerous attempts to restore music programming on MTV since 2016, including the long-awaited return of TRL in 2017. Parent company ViacomCBS' 2017 restructuring plan saw MTV turn to both live and unscripted programming to restore the network's prominence. With Viacom's purchase of streaming service Pluto TV in 2019, MTV-branded channels with MTV archive programming, as well as (gasp!) music video channels.
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.
See also MuchMusic, a similar Canadian network that previously launched an American feed, now known as Fuse.
Series that have aired on MTV:
- 16 and Pregnant
- Æon Flux
- The Andy Milonakis Show
- Bamimation (failed pilot)
- Beavis and Butt-Head
- The Ben Stiller Show
- The Brothers Grunt
- Cartoon Sushi
- Catfish: The TV Show
- Celebrity Deathmatch
- Clone High
- Dead at 21
- Deadtime Stories (failed pilot)
- Faking It
- Finding Carter
- Geordie Shore
- Girl Code
- Good Vibes
- The Head
- Headbangers Ball
- The Hills
- Jersey Shore
- Laguna Beach
- Liquid Television
- The Maxx
- Migraine Boy
- The Monkees
- MTV Live
- My Super Sweet Sixteen
- Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica
- Pimp My Ride
- The Real World
- Remote Control
- Road Rules
- The Shannara Chronicles
- The Sifl and Olly Show
- Singled Out
- Skins (The American remake)
- Spider-Man: The New Animated Series
- Spy Groove
- The State
- Station Zero
- Teen Wolf
- The Tom Green Show
- True Life
- Viva La Bam
- Zach Stone Is Gonna Be Famous
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 formally 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.
- 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 a women-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.