Top 6 ways MTV changed television

It's been 30 years since "Video Killed the Radio Star" launched a network that defined a generation... or two

The 30-year-old Music Television network made rap mainstream and, for better or worse, created reality TV with "The Real World."
(Image credit: Jan Butchofsky/CORBIS)

On Aug. 1, 1981, MTV launched with a symbolic broadcast of the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Three decades later, the network, which turns 30 today, has evolved so completely that it's almost unrecognizable, but, although it's no longer predominantly in the business of airing videos, MTV remains a game-changing network. From Madonna to Snooki, here are the six ways MTV changed television:

1. It put music videos on the map

There would be no convoluted Lady Gaga clips to dissect and certainly no Rebecca "Friday" Black had MTV not given music videos their "popular and accessible position," says Daisy Bowie-Sell at Britain's Telegraph. The network redefined the job description of a musician and created stars, giving acts like Madonna, Duran Duran, and Midnight Oil what may have been their first national exposure, says Phil Gianficaro at Philly Burbs. Music videos and, by extension, the network became intrinsically tied to an entire generation. "We all wanted our MTV because having it and watching it was like wearing a badge of coolness," says Jen Chaney at The Washington Post.

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2. The VMAs made awards shows controversial

No awards show lends itself better to a "Best Moments" countdown than MTV's Video Music Awards. "The world gasped" when Madonna writhed on stage in a wedding dress 27 years ago for her performance of "Like a Virgin," says Megan Choi at CNN, and has never stopped being shocked by the awards show — did 2010 have a bigger music story than Kanye West's stage-bombing of Taylor Swift? The VMAs have been, and will continue to be, watercooler TV viewing — even if the network has long stopped regularly airing music videos.

3. MTV helped make rap mainstream

MTV may have been "a little slow to catch on to hip-hop," says Chaney, but its hit show Yo! MTV Raps played a big part in introducing the genre to a wider audience. By mainstreaming rap's biggest hits, says Rich Juzwiak at TV Guide, the show may have saved the genre from becoming a splintered niche and paved the way for today's hip-hop-infused pop scene, in which "genre lines are looser than ever."

4. It created reality TV...

In 1992, MTV aired a docuseries that examined what happened when seven strangers lived in a house together and "got real." The Real World — which in its 25 seasons has spotlighted the HIV/AIDS epidemic, race relations, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and the gay rights movement — "pioneered reality TV," says Bowie-Sell, a genre that has infiltrated nearly every corner of TV.

5. … and then changed the face of it

MTV launched the reality TV phenomenon and then continued to shape its evolution. With The Osbournes and The Hills, reality TV became as much about storytelling as it was about documentary television. In fact, The Hills even "honestly tackled" its "dishonesty" by "brilliantly" panning back to reveal stagehands taking down its set during the show's series finale, says Daniel J. Flynn at The American Spectator. The series paved the way for hits like Jersey Shore — a series that redefined the level of fame (and salary) reality stars could enjoy. With new shows like Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant, the network proves its decades-long ability to "pervade American culture with its programming"

6. It proved that a network can — and maybe should — grow up with its viewers

Sure, MTV may no longer play music videos, but that's because its audience now demands something different — of the Snooki variety, says Chaney. When MTV launched, critics lamented its "celebration of style over substance" when it comes to music. Thirty years later, the network is still inspiring "hand-wringing," but now it's lambasted for rewarding the "vapid behavior" of its reality stars despite their lack of talent. Unwaveringly focused on "youth culture," MTV has, for 30 years, been "preaching to the same choir; it’s just [that] the members of said choir eventually grew up and got replaced by new ones."

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