Turning 30 usually signifies that a person has hit a certain maturity level and has reached full adulthood. But that doesn’t really apply to MTV, which celebrates its 30th birthday on Aug. 1. The first-ever 24-hour music channel has made it a point not to grow up and to instead align itself with the kids of each succeeding generation.
That’s been the key to the channel’s longevity, say critics. MTV hasn’t succeeded at everything it's tried, as its recently unsuccessful teen drama “Skins” attests. But it hasn’t played it safe either in its journey from cable startup to a global phenomenon. (According to the network, MTV is now available in 611 million households worldwide.)
The station’s recent, controversial hit programs — such as “Teen Mom,” “16 and Pregnant” and “Jersey Shore” — might seem to be a far cry from its original focus, which was to simply broadcast music videos.
But Anthony DeCurtis, a contributing editor at Rolling Stone, believes the network has been in the vanguard of barrier-breaking TV all along, and the new shows are just an extension of its original intent.
“Back in 1981, the idea that there would be a 24-hour music-video channel was unheard of,” DeCurtis said. “It was like, ‘Who’s gonna watch that? How is that gonna work?’ It just seemed silly. But it was one of those things that created the audience for itself.”
DeCurtis said he also believes “the teen pregnancy shows are still in that spirit.
“As kind of reprehensible as their teen-pregnancy shows are, there’s still a kind of daring about them that I admire,” DeCurtis said. “I always felt like that was MTV’s greatest strength. As someone who has worked in media ... I’ve seen how success can bring a lack of willingness to try things.”
The reason MTV still seems edgy and sexy, DeCurtis said, is the station “has a willingness to tap into a lot of desires that people don’t like to admit to.”
When video killed the radio star
MTV wasn’t even close to being a global sensation on Aug. 1, 1981, when it aired its first music video, the symbolic “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the British new-wave duo known as the Buggles. In fact, “cable television itself was in its infancy,” recalled Nina Blackwood, one of the network’s five original VJs.
“It was all a gamble,” Blackwood said. “There was a good chance it would become somewhat successful, but as huge as it became globally, I don’t think anybody expected that.”
Blackwood said that MTV in its infancy gave the record industry a much-needed “shot in the arm,” since the music business was in something of a post-disco slump in the early 1980s. The idea of being able to see musical artists was novel back then, Blackwood said. It was so novel, in fact, that most bands didn’t even have videos, leaving the channel to program pretty much what it had in reserve.
So American audiences got a lot of music videos by then-unknown British acts such as Duran Duran, A Flock of Seagulls and Haircut 100, all of whom were more media savvy than their American contemporaries. Thus, MTV got its start shaking up the status quo simply because it placed jarring new sights and sounds before the eyes and ears of American audiences — who at the time were sending light country pop and corporate rock up the charts.
It’s this early era of MTV that the channel’s critics cite when they say the network has moved away from its original concept. One of those critics includes Steve Spears, now the entertainment editor at the St. Petersburg Times and host of the Stuck in the '80s blog and podcast. Spears said he’s “constantly nostalgic for the old days and probably not a day goes by when I don’t think about the first years of MTV.”
But MTV began to change soon after. In 1985, it started airing non-musical programming when it sent cameras to Daytona Beach, Fla., for its first live “Spring Break” coverage. That same year, it also became the first television network to air safe sex PSAs, and began broadcasting episodes of a British comedy called “The Young Ones.”
But the real start of the MTV we see on the air today was its first try at an original game show, the in-your-face “Remote Control,” which both Blackwood and Spears say they saw as a turning point in the channel’s evolution. While the show’s pop-trivia theme kept the focus on music, its coarse tone foreshadowed what the channel would become. “That really signified a change in direction for them,” Blackwood said.
The year 1992 saw the channel produce its first reality television program with “The Real World.” While not the first reality-TV program, its popularity opened the door for the explosion of the genre later in the decade.
Said Spears: “It’s almost like when we grew up and became adults, MTV went on and became its own thing. It adapted to a new generation.”
Art for commerce’s sake?
After “The Real World,” MTV still focused on pushing the boundaries of what was appropriate for television — but it did so with its non-musical programming. From “Beavis and Butt-Head” to “The Tom Green Show” to “Jackass,” the network seemed to want to be the very embodiment of what everyone’s parents didn’t want them to watch.
And that was exactly the point, said Jim DeRogatis, the pop-music critic at the Chicago Sun-Times.
“To always seem hipper, hotter and to scare your parents is in the great tradition of rock ’n’ roll,” DeRogatis said. “That’s kind of noble in a way. But not so noble is the procession of mooks, idiots, sexist pigs and basically scum of the earth that MTV has taken to trotting out to push those buttons.”
But DeRogatis said he believes MTV has a more insidious motive for its move away from music than its chance to push the limits of acceptable TV.
“It’s friendly to commerce,” he said. “When you have artists who are questioning the system and you’re trying to sell something, it’s more problematic than when you have the cast of ‘Jersey Shore.’ Those people would put barcode tattoos for any product MTV wanted to advertise on their foreheads. Kurt Cobain was not quite so complacent and cooperative.”
Nor does pushing the envelope equal great art, said Mary McNamara, the television critic for the Los Angeles Times. McNamara said the station hasn’t had a “consistent track record” when it comes to the quality of the programs it airs, but “every once in a while, they do get something that captures the imagination.
“ ‘Jersey Shore’ was their first hit in forever,” said McNamara, referring to the 2009 program that MTV said is its highest-rated series ever. “I think they have been floundering trying to do original content of any kind. ‘Beavis and Butt-Head’ was probably the last original thing they did. ‘Jersey Shore’ is ‘The Real Housewives of the Jersey Shore,’ so I can’t particularly say that’s original.”
McNamara said she has fond memories of watching early music videos in high school, but said she realizes “that’s not enough to sustain a TV channel,” especially considering that when MTV started, it had little competition but the three major television networks.
“Here was something completely new and different and delivering a completely different product — and now in the TV landscape you can find anything,” McNamara said. “What made (MTV) so amazing was the music video, which is now ubiquitous. You can get it on YouTube; you can get it anywhere.”
Despite the success of “Jersey Shore” and MTV’s attention-grabbing video-awards show, McNamara said she doesn’t believe the channel “really reinvented itself in a meaningful way. It’s just been playing catch up.”
DeCurtis, on the other hand, said MTV’s longevity itself stands as a sign of the network's success and that much of the innovation the channel did in the past is now taken for granted.
“So many elements of what it did and was the first to do have become so much a part of the cultural climate that you almost have to be a historian or have lived through it to credit MTV for it,” said DeCurtis. “Its impact has been so pervasive as to almost have been erased.”
Tony Sclafani has written about pop music for such publications as the Washington Post Express, the Village Voice, Pop Matters and Record Collector magazine. He is a frequent contributor to TODAY.com.