On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m., MTV launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” spoken by John Lack. They were so obviously committed to the rock format that they leaned heavily on Hard Rock, Classic Rock and Heavy Metal. The channel only begrudgingly featured the New Wave of rock and Synth Pop and virtually ignored all music made by black people beyond tokenism until Michael Jackson’s label threatened to yank all their content and MTV was forced to feature the video for Jackson’s song, “Billie Jean” in heavy rotation.
Originally the “M” stood for “Music” and the channel brought music videos to the masses 24/7. The early music videos that made up the bulk of MTV’s programming in the 1980s were promotional videos [called “promos” in the U.K.] that record companies had commissioned for international use or concert clips from whatever sources could be found. As the medium matured hyper photogenic acts were created with some of them understanding the video medium enough to develop concept style videos that featured story lines either supporting or expanding the song’s lyrics.
Music videos became a cultural phenomenon by the mid to late 80’s to such an extent that Disney created, “Videopolis” in the Tomorrowland section of their parks where guests could dance to music and the accompanying video projected on massive screens that surrounded them. Knott’s Berry Farm followed suit with their Cloud K dance area. Screens began popping up in record stores, hair salons and other places that previously had background music.
Since its inception MTV has rarely reflected youth culture, instead it has funneled certain elements of mainstream culture into an easily digestible format and shoved it down the throats of young impressionable kids in an effort to homogenize and expand their audience.
In the late 90’s MTV decided to move away from music and began playing fewer and fewer music videos. By the channel’s 20th anniversary they had abandoned music entirely and today the “M” in the channel’s name stands for either “Mook” or “Midriff” as those are the terms the company uses to describe it’s male and female target market respectively. Today the network is best known for its Jersey Shore franchise.
Happy Birthday MTV!