The Rise and Reimagining of MTV
MTV is 40 years old, found its fortune with Gen X, and has reinvented itself for every generation since
Just after midnight on August 1, 1981, MTV debuted on cable television with the Buggles’ prescient music video, “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Like many groundbreaking innovations, its emergence was the result of an amalgamation of simultaneous events including the growing popularity of cable television and TV executives’ aspirations to capture youth audiences. Moreover, technological advancements made MTV’s emergence possible and, along with cultural shifts, have influenced the station’s evolution through the last four decades.
The videos played in MTV’s early days were influenced by earlier promotional videos that had once accompanied sales campaigns in record stores. Now, via cable television, MTV executives had a powerful way to draw in young viewers with money to spend.
“The youth audience had this purchasing power, and they weren’t really being targeted by cable channels yet,” says media scholar Amanda Klein, whose recent book, Millennials Killed the Video Star, examines the channel’s shift from music to reality TV.
When it first launched, MTV’s dedication to displaying music videos 24 hours a day was what made it unique. To the station’s primarily young, White, and suburban audience, this amorphous format was also a huge part of its appeal. While even from its early days, MTV was criticized for not playing Black musicians until it became clear that its audience wanted to see the likes of Prince and Michael Jackson, it would be Jackson’s 13-minute “Thriller” film in 1983 that revolutionized music videos as a concept. Airing “Thriller” cemented MTV as a national cultural establishment.
Meanwhile, Madonna’s stardom was influenced by the station as much as it also gave rise to her legendary pop star status with provocative videos from “Like a Prayer” (1989) to “Erotica” (1992). But even from its early years in the 1980s, MTV went beyond music videos, experimenting with live-music programs such as The Cutting Edge and later MTV…