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The History of MTV

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Launched on August 1st, 1981, MTV is an American television network whose original purpose was to air music videos introduced by video jockeys to promote bands, musicians and artists. It has expanded throughout the years to include music-based shows, awards show broadcasts, and reality programs, many of which have become famous in popular culture. In this video, we take a look at the history of MTV from the first music video shown to its most recent reality show success, Jersey Shore.

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Music Television, or MTV, launched on August 1st, 1981 by airing the Buggles’ clip “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and this was followed by the Pat Benatar tune “You Better Run.” Originally, MTV’s programming was centered on music videos to help artists gain exposure, and these videos were introduced by young on-air personalities known as video jockeys, or VJs. Since its debut, MTV has helped television audiences connect with music on a new level.


Early on, MTV concentrated on rock music, and played classic artists such as The Police and Journey. Many 80’s rock acts also found fame through the channel, like the Eurythmics and Van Halen.

Michael Jackson

The channel’s focus on rock left many black artists out of regular rotation. The color barrier was finally broken in 1983 when MTV played the Michael Jackson video, “Billie Jean.” This not only increased Jackson’s worldwide recognition, but also paved the way for more coverage of other black artists.

Award Ceremonies

The next year, the channel debuted the MTV Video Music Awards as an alternative to the more formal Grammy’s. An awards ceremony dedicated to film called the MTV Movie Awards premiered eight years later. As MTV’s popularity grew, the network branched out by creating music-themed shows such as the alternative rock-based “120 Minutes,” the heavy metal-focused “Headbangers Ball” and the hip-hop-devoted “Yo! MTV Raps.”

International Concerts

MTV began covering major international concerts with 1985’s Live Aid. Throughout the years, the channel has also broadcast live performances from global gigs such as Live 8 and Live Earth.

Outside of Music

The live series “MTV Unplugged” debuted in 1989, and became a popular outlet for acoustic performances. In the early 1990s, the network helped popularize reality television with shows like “The Real World.” MTV’s ever-evolving format also came to include more adult-oriented animated programs: “Aeon Flux,” “Daria,” and “Beavis and Butthead” all became well-known.


It was also during this period that musicians became more focused on their videos, and as a result they became more artistic and polished. In fact, a number of famous directors got their start in the industry directing videos in the ‘90s.

Musical Variety

At this time, MTV began to embrace a variety of musical acts. These included successful rock, R&B and pop acts like Metallica, Boyz II Men, New Kids on the Block and Madonna. They also started playing more hip hop, like LL Cool J, and less mainstream rappers like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tupac.

Alternative Rock

Then came Nirvana to lead the rise of alternative rock. The success of their “Smells Like Teen Spirit” video allowed for heavier rotation of other grunge and alt-rock bands like Rage Against the Machine and Nine Inch Nails. MTV also started airing game shows and talk shows such as “Singled Out” and “The Jon Stewart Show” around this time.

Electronic, Hip Hop and Pop Music

By 1997, MTV began incorporating more electronica into its programming, and showcased artists like The Prodigy and Daft Punk. Electronic influences were soon seen in the music of recognizable acts like David Bowie, Radiohead and U2. However, by the end of that year, pop took over the airwaves with the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, and Britney Spears becoming staples. Hip-hop and R&B acts like Puff Daddy, Eminem and Destiny’s Child also started making the rounds.

Total Request Live

In response to criticism that it was not playing enough music videos, MTV came up with several music video-based shows. The most popular of these was the countdown show “Total Request Live,” thanks to host Carson Daly. However, the network continued to schedule non-music related programming, including comedy shows and soap operas such as “The Tom Green Show,” “Jackass” and “Undressed.”

Reality Shows

The next decade saw the reduction of music video airplay and the rise of reality shows. Some of the most successful celebrity-based ones were “The Osbournes,” “Punk’d,” “Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica,” and “A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila”. Other reality shows turned cast members into stars, and these included “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” and “The Hills.” In 2009, MTV had a surprise hit with the controversial but extremely popular show, “Jersey Shore.”


Today, MTV boasts networks in over 30 languages in over 160 countries. The network has stayed relevant by continually adapting throughout its existence, and had succeeded in becoming an undeniable influence not only in music but in popular culture as well.

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