MTV turns 30 today. How old! Also how historic; in three decades, the network revolutionized media, turned heads inside and out, and struggled to remain relevant. But one thing should be obvious now: it was never just about music.
Shortly after midnight on August 1st, 1981, MTV enjoyed its first-ever broadcast, accompanied by the now- iconic spot featuring the 1969 launch of Apollo 11. Iconic and appropriate; music television was space age stuff, so naturally Buzz Aldrin would stand reverently beside that first MTV logo. And as sad as it's been to see MTV lose sway to the power of YouTube and VeVo, they've done a great deal for our little corner of the techno-media world.
The very first music video to air? You know that: "Video Killed the Radio Star," by The Buggles. While it certainly wasn't the first music video ever—you could make the case that the Beatles' 1964 opus A Hard Day's Night is one looong music video—MTV pioneered the format by making it mainstream, paving the way for classics like Thriller and Mo' Money Mo' Problems. (I'm only kind of kidding with that last one.) While video didn't quite kill radio, MTV was the vanguard of a changing paradigm in music and technology.
And all that from such humble beginnings. The first MTV broadcast was handled by VCR—shows and videos were play on VHS, and there would be moments when the broadcast would go black while tapes were switched out—and could only be seen by a few thousand people in northern Jersey. But slowly, over the years, kids started to beg their parents for cable for the express purpose of watching the network. They wanted their MTV. And television itself wouldn't be the same.
You either love reality television, or hate to love reality television. There's no middle ground there, and you have MTV largely to thank for how the format has exploded into Keeping Up With the Kardashians craziness. Again, MTV didn't quite invent the reality television show; 1971's An American Family probably claims that pedigree. But it was 1992's The Real World: New York that was truly changed television in a tangible way. It stuck. It stuck and it grew and it evolved into the shoddy seething mass of fame-mad lushes it is today. Now every network has something just like it.
It also doesn't hurt to mention that the editing that makes these shows so damned watchable is made possible by the non-linear editing systems that many of us take for granted today. Why do you enjoy Jersey Shore at all? AVID and Final Cut Pro.
MTV was pretty quick to jump on and opine about the Internet (capital "I") in its early days, as filled with sex, robots, and flashing ads as it was then. Adam Curry, one of the VJs for such early shows as Headbangers Ball and Dial MTV, was excited enough about it to write up the original MTV.com back in 1993. Curry would go on to help invent the podcast, with some people now calling him the Podfather.
MTV would continue to experiment with the medium, being among the first brands to use chat rooms, SMS, Twitter, and whatever else was at their disposal to get young people to watch.
Unfortunately, the times they are forever a-changing. With the advent of YouTube in 2005, MTV—who had already started to shake off all that pesky music in favor of more diverse—read: cheap, reality-based—programming, was losing customers to that same beloved internet (lowercase "i"). People didn't need to turn on their TVs to watch their videos anymore. They were all online.
The network fought back, with projects like MTV Overdrive that tried to bring their programming and audience to the web. That failed. And more recently, the major labels that combined to form Vevo attacked them hard by offering more quality content for both computers and smartphones than a third party every could. MTV, now with a leaner logo without the Music Television, shifted gears dramatically. The torch had already been passed.
Look. At the end of the day, MTV is about culture—however base so much of what they show might be.. Even when it's not about the music, you can't deny they were an innovator and, in their way, still try to be. From the beginning, MTV has presented humanity, for better or worse, in ways that a lot of networks wouldn't dare. That they exist at all is why we have meme-ready moments like this. So you may mourn the loss of real Music Television. You may hate the all the facelifts and fakery. But MTV certainly still means something. So Happy Birthday, MTV. May there be many more.
You can keep up with Kwame Opam, the author of this post, on Twitter, Facebook, and occasionally Google+.