MTV was born 30 years ago on August 1, 1981 as a scrappy underground music channel, kicking off the age of the music video with “Video Killed The Radio Star” by The Buggles. Since then, the so-called "Music Television" network has become an emblem of American youth culture and has bloomed into a multi-billion dollar property made up of dozens of individual channels and Web sites.
In recent years, some have criticized MTV as having abandoned the broadcast of music videos in favor of ratings-boosting shows like “Jersey Shore” and “Sixteen and Pregnant.” Yet the station’s ratings are still impressive: MTV reports that it currently has four of the top 15 most-watched shows on cable.
WNYC asked music, television and pop-culture critics to weigh in on MTV and its role in shaping the American cultural landscape.
Jen Chaney, pop-culture columnist for the Washington Post: “When MTV started, you would just sit there for hours and ingest three-minute video after three-minute video. Parents were very concerned about this, like “What is this doing to kids' attention spans? Back then, I don't think we could have imagined how much our culture would accelerate in the digital era, in the Internet era, with YouTube clips and all that kind of stuff. And I think the seeds for that was really planted when MTV came along. The way the music video aesthetic started to influence how commercials, TV shows, and movies were made. I remember when 'Miami Vice' first came on, they called it the 'MTV cop show' because everybody thought it was cut in a way reminiscent of music videos.”
Walter Podrazik, Consulting Curator for the Museum of Broadcast Communications: “The year before MTV began, CNN had launched. That all news service demonstrated that cable could offer an option that, once experienced, could be readily embraced (and justified by adults): all-news, all-the-time, on television. Little more than a year later, MTV upped the ante. The difference with MTV was that it was entirely superfluous but absolutely necessary — at least for the younger members of the household. That younger demographic then lent a sense of urgency to adding cable access to the household. It’s no coincidence that 'I Want My MTV' became the new generation’s catch phrase. It embodied the voice of that younger generation; this is something they wanted, they needed, now! The younger household members would consider MTV as the reason for having cable, and would embrace the channel as part of their own up-to-the-minute-social-standing-lifestyle."
Sasha Frere-Jones, pop critic for the New Yorker: "I’ve been watching the first 24 hours of MTV, and they are were pretty remarkable, every video they played. The No. 5 video is Ph.D's “Little Susie’s On The Up” — nobody has ever heard that song. The first song they played is kind of cool: “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. There’s something very knowing about video killing off another form, and that’s not entirely true, but it certainly presages the moment where the MP3 kills the entire form and perhaps an entire industry. They knew that a format change, a technical change, could create a social and behavioral change. And they were right! The minute you could download music, the entire game changed. Whether it was the age when videos mattered a lot from the mid ‘80s to the mid ‘90s, or Total Request Live, which was an early form of social media in its own way, or the birth of reality TV that came after, MTV’s legacy is kind of huge no matter what anyone thinks of them now."
Watch the first music video on MTV, "Video Killed the Radio Star," below: