On August 1, 1981, six words changed American culture forever: "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!" With that short declaration, a new generation was born — the "MTV generation."
Never before had there been an around-the-clock TV show about music. With 24 hours to fill, MTV showed virtually any video they got. The first MTV video to hit the airwaves came from an obscure British band. That first song, ironically titled Video Killed the Radio Star, was followed by Pat Benatar's You Better Run and Rod Stewart's She Won't Dance.
Syracuse University Professor Robert Thompson remembers MTV's debut vividly. He started teaching the same month it went on the air.
"MTV really forced you to get cable because what it provided could be gotten nowhere else," Thompson said.
I Want my MTV!
Thompson, who watches and analyzes TV for a living, said MTV took a specific group of people and gave them an identity.
"It's interesting how no other entity in television, no network, no cable service has ever had a generation named after it. You don't hear about the Food Channel generation or the Golf Channel generation."
When MTV came along it really changed the industry. Suddenly music couldn't just sound good; it had to look good too.
Alan Light, the editor in chief of Spin magazine, said established artists and newcomers were suddenly able to have the biggest hits of their careers if they had the right video.
"There were these superstars like Michael Jackson and Madonna, who reached unprecedented, unparalleled heights," Light said. "What MTV did was for the first time give one big central outlet for music, and so rather than having to go radio station to radio station, there was one big hit that became the primary outlet for new music and new bands."
Feeding Pop Culture
MTV's timing was perfect because pop culture was ready for it. At that time punk rock was dying, disco was gasping its last breath and John Lennon had been shot by an assassin's bullet.
"MTV did to cable what Milton Berle did to regular broadcast television," Thompson said. "It started the explosion. It lit the fuse."
It could be argued that this new channel on our TV dial changed the pace of our lives, while transforming our attention spans.
MTV gave advertisers new ideas about editing and movie directors a new vocabulary. And its impact on network TV may be stronger now than ever before. Would there be a Survivor if there were no Real World?
At first MTV's five original VJs were broadcasting to an audience of only one million. A year later, eight million more wanted their MTV and signed on.
For a monthly cable fee they got pop culture revolution blamed for polluting young minds with decadent words and images.
Thompson says MTV was waiting for its success waiting on Seasame Street.
"MTV essentially in 1981 was waiting with open arms for all those kids who had learned to count and who had learned their alphabet on these spectacular hallucinogenic imagery of Sesame Street," Thompson said. "MTV was ready to embrace them into early adulthood."
As MTV's audience grew, so did the budgets. Early videos could cost as little as a few thousand dollars to produce. By 1989 Madonna was the first person to spend one million dollars to express herself in a music video. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. A few years later Michael and Janet Jackson's Scream video rolled out with a price tag of more than seven million dollars.
Meanwhile, the fervor of youth had brought the power of change. MTV had a social agenda and they were not afraid to use it. In the third season of the Real World (we're now on season 10), one of the housemates in the San Francisco dwelling had AIDS.
MTV put together its own news broadcast and politicians courted MTV voters.
Where’s the Music?
Today, MTV is seen in 350 million homes and in 70 percent of the world. It generates reported annual revenues of $3 billion. The music is still there, but not enough, say the channel's critics.
Today "Music TV" is a brand name. It produces theatrical movies, game shows, and an awards show where anything goes.
So now that MTV is out of its teen years, how will it stay young and hip? It's likely to continue switching to younger VJs and always programming to a younger audience.
But what about the MTV generation? Will they stay loyal to the channel that brought them so many hours of sinful joy?
More importantly for MTV, how will their offspring react to the channel their mom and dad grew up watching?
Thompson said MTV has an enormous challenge ahead of it in the next 20 years — creating a second MTV generation.