Is classic MTV better than today's MTV?
- MTV debuted on cable television shortly after midnight on August 1, 1981, airing “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles as their first video.
- The “I want my MTV!” ad campaign was devised by legendary ad executive George Lois, with Mick Jagger--who happened to be a friend of MTV executive Les Garland--speaking the famous line in the first spot.
- MTV’s first non-musical program was the game show Remote Control, which debuted in 1987.
- The Real World, credited with “creating the Reality TV genre,” is the longest-running program in MTV’s history, airing continuously from 1992-2017.
Classic MTV was a groundbreaking new distribution channel for music with an entirely different medium: videos. In fact, MTV stands for Music Television. The network’s debut in 1981 coincided with advances in computer technology, particularly microprocessing speed and more sophisticated graphics capabilities. This perfect storm of a burgeoning new art form supported by technological advances helped fuel the growth of MTV while at the same time challenging artists to produce videos that were more than simply filmed performances of their songs. This was truly the equivalent of the Atomic Age for music culture.
Classic MTV was a cultural icon--synonymous with all that was cool for the youth of the 80s: fashion, hairstyles, movies, music, news, etc. Its arrival also overlapped with new musical genres emerging from the UK (e.g., New Wave, Post-Punk, Goth, New Romantic, etc.). And MTV’s embrace of this music led to a second British Invasion of the 80s.
Music listeners were used to radio DJs (disc jockeys) introducing new music, but classic MTV offered an upgrade to that experience by presenting us with male and female VJs (video jockeys) who had diverse personalities and styles and who hosted time slots, conducted interviews, and announced upcoming concerts and music festivals. They became trusted advisors for the cutting-edge music of the time.
Classic MTV was superior to the reality programming focus of its next iteration. As it turned away from its founding principles (i.e., playing music videos, defining cool for its youthful audience), MTV lost its influence and viewership. Classic MTV was wise to remember that the ‘M’ in its name stands for music.
In its heyday, MTV was renowned for its originality and the unique opportunities it offered artists. However, these opportunities weren't universal, and classic MTV actively rejected airing Black artists. In the first few years of the network, the only featured artists of color were The Specials, an English band composed of both Black and White members. This racism by omission was due to the belief that White viewers would no longer 'embrace' MTV if it aired Black artists.
In contrast, today's MTV unveiled an initiative in 2015 to 'create and sponsor ongoing programming designed to change attitudes and behaviors around racial bias.'
Notably, classic MTV was created for a different generation—that is, a generation without a multitude of video streaming platforms at its fingertips. The network did not make a lot of money by airing music videos alone, so in order to stay in business and diversify content, MTV created several classic favorites like 'Beavis and Butthead.'
However, this was not enough, and the network turned to reality programming in order to stay relevant. Moving away from its classic music-video format, MTV produced a consistent output of new and creative reality-based shows like Teen Mom, MTV Cribs, The Challenge, and of course, the ever-popular Jersey Shore, which, at its peak in 2011, amassed 8.78 million viewers. At one time merely a showcase of interesting music, the network has evolved into a dynamic, influential force to be reckoned with. And with newly appointed President Chris McCarthy at the helm, MTV has returned to '#1 with young audiences, reaching more people across cable, social, streaming and events than any other brand.' Today's MTV is more diverse and exciting than its classic counterpart.