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Societies are largely shaped by their popular cultures, and for the past 30 years MTV has been the driving force behind the American experience.
Since its premiere on Aug. 1, 1981, MTV instantly entered the hearts and minds of high-school and college-aged crowds and has continued to do so for three decades, initially with music videos and more recently with teen sitcoms and reality shows.
It would be easy to defame the network’s 30th anniversary by accusing the channel of airing trashy programs and lamenting that it never shows music videos anymore. While the first charge may be true and the second depends on who you ask, the fact remains that MTV has helped – for better or worse – mold American culture into its current form.
When MTV began gaining popularity in the 1980s, the music industry took notice and started investing in making intense and creative music videos by using the latest film techniques and broadcasting content with questionable messages.
In an effort to create attractive and impactful videos, record companies hired inventive young filmmakers to direct shocking, rule-breaking three-minute videos. Some of those directors would go on to create some of the most artistic films of the last two decades such as the surrealistic “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” by director Michel Gondry, who directed music videos for Beck, Radiohead and others before turning to major blockbusters.
MTV soon made itself the channel to watch among young adults; teenagers flocked to the station to see the latest and hottest music videos launching the careers of both musicians and video jockeys.
It is possible that the title of the network’s first music video, The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” may have foreshadowed the current state of the channel, for MTV is said to have “killed the radio stars of the past.” Many accuse MTV of killing rock and roll with its 1997 introduction of boy bands such as the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, as well as pop princesses Britney Spears, Jessica Simpson, Mandy Moore, and Christina Aguilera. This change led viewers and commentators to begin chanting the slogan “Rock is Dead,” a testament to the power of the network.
By this time in the channel’s history, viewers began criticizing MTV for not playing as many music videos as it had in the past. In response, the station created various shows that centered on music, which culminated in the creation of “Total Request Live,” an hour-long show that introduced the latest music videos and various performances in front of a live audience.
In an effort to “right its wrong,” MTV reintroduced rock to the world in 1999 by airing a special called “Return of the Rock,” which included music videos by Green Day, POD, Incubus, and Papa Roach. Such daily programs and their successor, “All things Rock,” continued the campaign to revive rock until 2004, when MTV began to place more emphasis on its new monster that had been gaining in popularity: reality television shows.
In 1992 the station launched its first reality show, “The Real World,” which showcased young adults living together in a camera-filled house, with the videographers trained to capture their interpersonal relationships. The show, the longest running program on MTV, is credited with inspiring the reality television craze that has since dominated the network. Following the introduction of “The Real World,” teens wanting to know exactly how celebrities lived could catch “MTV’s Cribs,” a 30-minute program during which stars gave viewers tours of their lavish estates.
Those longing for a chance to improve their own lives signed up for “Made” and learned that becoming head cheerleader or class president involves getting off the couch and actually living life instead of watching others on MTV.
The station also extended its tentacles into the land of animated sitcoms, amongst them “Daria” and “Beavis and Butthead” in the early 1990s, as well as airing shows from its sister network Nickelodeon.
MTV reduced its music video rotations as the flood of programs not related to music videos began to dominate the network. Slowly, the reality television shows kicked out music videos and VJs and ultimately caused the cancellation of “TRL” in 2008, which brought an end to an era. Today, music on the legendary network consists of one night only, the annual Video Music Awards.
A series of controversies, including Janet Jackson’s “wardrobe malfunction” at the MTV-produced halftime show at Super Bowl XXXV, prompted MTV to attempt to revamp its image in 2009. The network put into works the creation of several shows such as “T.I.’s Road to Redemption” and Fonzworth Bentley’s show about a male finishing school called “From G’s to Gents.”
The attempt was well received, if just for a short period. The New York Times published an article about one of the programs, “The Buried Life,” stating that this new MTV was “MTV for the era of Obama” because of the network’s new dedication to making a difference in its viewers’ lives.
Yet the change was short-lived. In December 2009, MTV gave the world “Jersey Shore” and never looked back. Due to the overwhelming response the show received, the network decided to stick with what works: drama.
During the last few years, the station has introduced scripted, controversial shows such as “Skins,” “The Hard Times of RJ Berger” and “Teen Wolf.” “Skins” incited the most controversy, as the show depicted young teenagers engaging in “casual” sex and drug use. The public outcry prompted many advertisers to pull spots from the show, and it was cancelled last year amid child pornography accusations.
Despite the setback of “Skins,” MTV continues to dominate its teen audience’s television sets. “Jersey Shore,” with its iconic cast of eight Italian-American housemates living on the shores of New Jersey, regularly draws in more than 3 million viewers on Thursday nights.
In shifting from a music video-centered model to reality television programs, MTV has abandoned the programming that brought it success in favor of more one-dimensional shows. While discussing issues such as teen pregnancy, sexuality, substance abuse, and other subjects, MTV presents these topics in a culturally-relevant, highly-superficial manner, meaning that the network, despite its flaws, still matters.
MTV’s viewership is still going strong, and who knows, maybe it will start showing music videos again in 30 more years. Then again, maybe not.