MTV at 25: How 'Music Television' Changed Its Tune With the Times

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Welcome to THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.  I'm Faith Lapidus. And I'm Steve Ember.  Some people love it.  Some think it ruins young minds.  And some remember the days when it was all music.  This week our subject is twenty-five years of Music Television -- better known as MTV.


MTV arrived in the early morning hours of August first, nineteen eighty-one.  At one minute after twelve it played "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles.

MTV was one of the first specialized channels on American television.  People could watch artists perform popular songs in videos.  The network played music videos all day long.

But at first only a few thousand people could watch MTV.  It was offered on cable television only in New Jersey.  Even the people who worked at MTV had to go to New Jersey if they wanted to see it on television.

In its early years, MTV was a lot like radio with pictures.  Radio stations had DJs, disk jockeys; MTV had VJs, video jockeys.  The VJs spoke to the audience between videos.

Twenty-five years ago, the music industry did not produce a great many videos.  Some people got tired of seeing MTV play the same ones over and over again.

Also, some people criticized MTV in its early years because it rarely showed videos by black artists.  The network said there were very few choices.  In any case, the situation began to change with help from an unusual video.  It appeared for the first time in December of nineteen eighty-three.

Most videos showed rock bands singing and playing instruments.  But this one was made to look like a scary movie, complete with zombies risen from the dead.

A young man leads the zombies in dance as he sings -- and becomes one of the undead himself.

The young man was Michael Jackson.  And this was the video for the title song of his album "Thriller."  It was fourteen minutes long, more like a short film than a video.

Hollywood movie director John Landis helped create it.  The costly effort showed that videos were becoming an important part of the music industry.  The video helped make "Thriller" one of the top-selling albums of all time.


Some musical artists were less than thrilled with the video success of performers like Michael Jackson and Madonna.  They thought MTV made the music industry too centered on looks and image and not enough on making good songs.


One band that criticized MTV was the Dead Kennedys.  In nineteen eighty-five they had a song called "MTV - Get off the Air."


Some other bands chose not to make videos.  This was their way to protest the influence of MTV.  But MTV became more and more popular.

Rock stars were not the only people to criticize MTV.  Since the beginning, many people saw it as a bad influence on children.  They said MTV showed a world without morals or values and full of sex and drugs.

From the beginning, MTV edited bad words out of songs and would not show some kinds of images.  Then, in the nineteen nineties, it began to do more about its own image.  MTV created new programs and campaigns to inform young people about serious issues.  There were shows about AIDS, poverty, racism, and violence at home.

MTV also began to urge young people to vote and expanded its political reporting.  In nineteen ninety-four, President Bill Clinton answered questions from a group of young people on MTV.  There were thoughtful questions, but one teenager asked him about his choice of underwear: boxers or briefs.  "Usually briefs," the president answered.

In nineteen ninety-one, MTV began a show called "The Real World."  "The Real World" brought seven young people to live together in New York and have their lives videotaped.  The success of the show helps explain the current popularity of reality programs on television.

"The Real World" also started a trend on MTV.  Instead of showing mostly music videos, it began to show more of other kinds of programming.  These included not only reality shows but also cartoons and game shows.  Today, MTV shows many more hours of these programs than it does of music videos.

But every year MTV honors the best music videos.  The two thousand six MTV Video Music Awards will be presented at Radio City Music Hall in New York on August thirty-first.

MTV is a group of networks owned by Viacom, a major media company in the United States.  MTV produces programs in many different languages and in many different countries.  Some shows have worldwide popularity -- like the reality show "Pimp My Ride."  The host is the rapper and actor known as Xzibit.  Average people are chosen to have their cars made to look really showy.

Not everyone is happy with the way MTV has changed.  Many older fans would like to see less of shows like "Pimp My Ride" and more of the music television that gave MTV its name.  They say things like, "Remember when there was music on MTV?"

You can still find music on the different MTV channels and networks.  You can also find programs about how famous musicians live, or lived, their lives.  Some people like to say that MTV today is no better or worse than it used to be, only different.

MTV has been setting up operations outside of the United States for years.  It now broadcasts in more than one hundred and sixty other countries.

MTV studies what is popular in each new country it enters.  This research helps guide local programs.  For example, more people in Germany ride bicycles than drive cars.  So, instead of "Pimp My Ride," the German MTV has a show called "Pimp My Bicycle."

Within the United States, MTV offers a number of specially targeted channels.  For example, MTV Desi brings music and culture from India to people of Indian ancestry in the United States.

Yet some people are uneasy with the idea of programs created for just one group.  They worry about cultural fragmentation.  They say common culture is breaking into smaller pieces because people have less in common than they used to.

MTV is not the only broadcaster with narrowly targeted programming.  And people can debate the influence of entertainment shows.  Are they more a cause or an effect of changes in culture?

But such issues are probably deeper than most people want to think of when they turn on the television.

In the past, many teenagers watched MTV to see what music was popular.  Today, they watch to see what activities, cars and clothes are cool.

In the past, many parents objected to some of the music videos shown on MTV.  Today, they still object to the videos -- along with the activities, the cars and the clothes.

So someone could argue that MTV still brings people together.

Over the past twenty-five years, MTV has presented everything from dancing zombies to discussions of the president's underwear.  It has survived criticism and changing music tastes and expanded around the world.  MTV has succeeded in reinventing itself from an all-music network to something completely different.


Our program was written by Sarah Randle and produced by Caty Weaver.  I'm Faith Lapidus.

And I'm Steve Ember.  You can download transcripts and listen to our shows at  And please join us again next week for THIS IS AMERICA in VOA Special English.