MTV at 30 -- How Did It Rock Our World?

MTV’s 30th birthday has come and gone. The candles have been blown out, the wishes have been made, and the cake has been eaten. It all went pretty much as expected. Like clockwork, as August approaches, in years ending in “1” or “6,” the infectious chorus of “Video Killed the Radio Star” pours out of TVs, radios, and laptops as everyone weighs in on another milestone in the history of one of our most distinctive cable channels.

It’s true that significant anniversaries of other television networks get observed and remarked upon in the media, but none of them seem to get the consistent and extensive coverage that is afforded to MTV, and this year was no different. Perhaps this is because MTV was designed especially for the young, while the channel itself is getting old. In its early days, MTV became the only TV network to have a generation named after it. Nobody refers to the “CBS Generation” or the “HBO Generation,” or even the “Nickelodeon Generation.”

As the channel begins its fourth decade, however, what does it mean to say “the MTV Generation?” Teenagers in 1981 who rolled their eyes at the parental command to “turn off those videos and do your homework” now command their own teenagers to “stop watching ‘Jersey Shore’ or you’ll never get into a good college.” Some people who started watching MTV as teenagers, in fact, are now grandparents.

Although MTV doesn’t have the centrality in youth culture that it once had, it’s remarkable how it has managed to remain relevant to emerging generations. From its beginnings as a household utility (you turned on the faucet and water came out; you turned on MTV and videos came out) the channel eventually added series like “Singled Out,” “Beavis and Butt-head,” and “The Hills” in order to adapt to changing youth tastes, increased competition, and new technologies.

The timing of MTV’s introduction in 1981 was particularly felicitous. All those kids who’d learned to count and recite their ABCs with the fast-paced and often hallucinogenic segments on Sesame Street were primed to grow into the comparable style of MTV. As MTV’s reputation grew, many of those kids begged their parents to get cable in a time when a lot of adults saw no reason to pay for TV when they could get it for free. We underestimate the degree to which MTV lit the fuse of the cable explosion in the 1980s; it may not be going too far to say that MTV was to the sale of cable subscriptions what Milton Berle was to the sale of television sets.

Throughout its history, there have certainly been plenty of things on MTV to drive parents, teachers, and intellectuals crazy: misogynistic images of women; alacritous coverage of spring break hedonism; young people behaving badly. MTV didn’t invent these things, of course, but they packaged them in a corporate aesthetic of iconoclasm that was (and is) highly appealing to many people. And every time groups like the Parents Television Council publically complained, it made the appeal even greater. Alas, there are a lot of kids out there who like things that drive their parents and teachers crazy: there always were; there always will be.

In addition to the admittedly problematic content on MTV, though, the network has also provided many important moments, both socially and artistically. “The Real World,” for example: making a documentary about a totally contrived situation was a story-telling innovation that anyone interested in the history of Western dramaturgy had better pay attention to. The first seasons of “The Real World” also provided many notable elements. Pedro Zamora, a cast member in the third season, probably did more for raising consciousnesses among young people about AIDS (and tolerance) than anything else in the culture at the time. In that same season, it should be remembered, another character, Puck, was exiled from the house for his impolite and intolerant behavior. It is well-known that MTV was bewilderingly late to include African-Americans in its regular video line-up, but once it did, shows like “Yo! MTV Raps” played a significant role in introducing hip-hop to many audience members who knew very little about it. “Daria,” a spin-off of “Beavis and Butt-head,” was a masterpiece of animated comedy about contemporary life in high school, and the surprisingly earnest “The Osbournes” remains the best celebrity reality show in the short history of that genre.

MTV was doing town hall meetings with political candidates long before YouTube existed, and campaigns like “Choose or Lose” and “think MTV” seem to show evidence of a sincere attempt at corporate responsibility. The MTV News documentary about popular culture in the year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, was one of the best treatments of the subject that I’d seen in any medium.

As for the arguments that current MTV programming is leading our youth down the road to perdition, many of the shows that disturb people most do not present characters that any typical viewer would see as role models. “16 and Pregnant” is much more likely to instill pity and fear in its viewers, and “Jersey Shore” is clearly designed to be viewed with a healthy dose of amused mockery.

Coincidentally, I began my career during the summer in which MTV made its debut. I was in the first semester of my Ph.D. program at Northwestern University on August 1, 1981, and I followed the new channel with much interest.

One of the first scholarly articles I ever had published was the result of hundreds of hours of trying to make sense of videos by the likes of Duran Duran, Culture Club, Flock of Seagulls, and the Eurythmics.

Not surprisingly, I suppose, that article found its way into a footnote in a study published by some doctors in The Journal of the American Medical Association---one of the first of thousands that continue to ask the question of what MTV is doing to our young people.

It may be that the day when adults quit worrying about the pernicious influence of MTV on kids will be the day that kids quit watching MTV.

Robert J. Thompson is the founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University, where he is also a Trustee Professor of Television and Popular Culture at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. He was a visiting professor for six summers at Cornell University and served for nine years as professor and director of the N.H.S.I. Television and Film Institute at Northwestern University.