'The center of the universe'
MTV: Rewinding 20 years of music revolution
By Jamie Allen
(CNN) -- On August 1, 1981, it was one risky step for television -- devoting an entire cable network to a merger of music and video.
But it has turned into a hugely profitable leap for just about everyone involved.
Now, two decades after the MTV rocket blasted off its cable platform with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" and planted its flag on the pop-culture moon, the network-studio-corporate-giant is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a day-long extravaganza on Wednesday.
It climaxes with a concert and party at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, televised on MTV. The show begins at 8 p.m. EDT and is scheduled to feature acts including P. Diddy (that's Sean "Puffy" Combs), Aerosmith, Depeche Mode, TLC, Blink 182, Ja Rule and Kid Rock.
For many, it will be a time not only to recall memories of growing up with the sights and sounds of Duran Duran, Madonna, Michael Jackson and other stars of MTV's early years; it also will be a time to celebrate a slice of pop culture that created its own generation separate from the Baby Boom set.
"It's the only television entity of any kind that ever had a generation named after it," says Robert Thompson, professor of media and popular culture and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse (New York) University. "We don't even have the CNN generation, but we have the MTV generation.
"This came out as the center of the universe for the demographic of young people and it managed to bring together people who would have been very disparate in what radio stations they listened to," Thompson says. "But they all came together in this one television hangout."
Perhaps most impressive about MTV was just how quickly it caught hold of youthful psyches in the early '80s. It seems that as suddenly as the appearance of the Rubik's Cube, a line was drawn in the schoolyard sand -- either you had seen the new Go-Go's video on MTV, or you were one of those poor saps who had been doing too much homework.
Jennifer Graham, a writer for TV Guide, was in 7th grade when she first tuned in to MTV.
"I was really, really into it," Graham says. "It was such a huge event. Everyone was talking about it. It defined pop culture for us at that time."
To say MTV changed the music business is an understatement. Artists embraced the medium or faced extinction.
New acts and artists including Duran Duran, Billy Idol, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper, U2 and Madonna took advantage of their memorable looks and onscreen presence to lure viewers into their songs and launch music careers that still are going today. And established icons -- Dire Straits and the Rolling Stones, among them -- used it to revive their careers.
"It really affected artists in the way that record companies market their music," says Graham. "Videos have become absolutely integral in the success of a pop band."
Despite MTV creating this need, the network struggled at first. Ask Bob Pittman, one of MTV's founders, now the co-Chief Operating Officer of AOL Time Warner (parent company of CNN.com). Pittman says he remembers early days of red ink and frayed nerves.
"It was a scary few years," Pittman says. "The reality was that no basic-cable TV network had ever succeeded. None of them had ever made money. There was a real question mark as to whether any advertising-supported basic-cable network could ever be a profitable venture."
Pittman recalls in 1983 being handed the unenviable responsibility of taking the network's annual $20 million loss and turning it into a $12 million loss -- or watch the network pull the plug.
By the end of 1983, Pittman says, MTV was in the black and on its way to making history. Now, it's seen in an estimated 350 million homes around the world, in a total of 140 countries.
An engine for success
There were other growing pains along the way to these numbers.
The network's initial failure to program videos by black artists was a sore spot until Michael Jackson broke through and redefined the medium with videos for "Billie Jean," "Beat It" and the first video epic, "Thriller."
"(His videos were) adding a new dimension," says Thompson. "I mean, Michael Jackson was a good musician, but I don't think the music would have been what it was without the moonwalk, without that extraordinary choreography that he splashed onto the screen."
After Jackson's success, the network helped turn black artists into mainstream successes. In the summer of 1986, rappers Run-DMC (with help from rockers Aerosmith) told everyone to "Walk This Way," and viewers followed in force, launching the likes of Public Enemy and N.W.A. to national prominence.
MTV has also succeeded at original programming. It started with the trivia game show "Remote Control" in 1987. "Yo! MTV Raps" and "Club MTV" followed shortly after, and by 1992 viewers were tuning in to "The Real World."
While some might see "The Real World" as a bunch of silly kids growing up on camera, Thompson says the show has much more significance. It was the guinea pig for the current reality television boom; and it pushed MTV to a new level of programming.
"'Real World' took MTV from being a venue where people have video wallpaper and background noise to what arguably is one of the great dramas that became the voice of a generation," says Thompson.
MTV has even jumped into moviemaking and political stumping. Its "Rock the Vote" campaign was highly praised and at times controversial (Madonna wearing red undies, combat boots and the American flag, anyone?).
In 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton campaigned for president on MTV, while his rival, President George Bush, refused the invitation. Clinton won the election and MTV has been taking credit ever since.
An MTV soundtrack
In fact, seemingly for every year of MTV's existence, there's a landmark event or video that can be recalled by younger Americans.
Much as their parents harken to the days of Woodstock and Elvis, the MTV generation uses the network as the pop-culture watermark of their existence.
Many a life-altering youth experience revolved around an MTV soundtrack: U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Public Enemy's "Don't Believe the Hype," Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," Tupac Shakur's "I Get Around," Wyclef Jean's "Gone Till November."
And the legacy continues. While Madonna still demands attention with her videos and concerts, Britney Spears -- who as a child idolized Madonna -- has become the next generation's pop princess and sex symbol.
The range of ages between MTV performers like Madonna and Britney signifies a widening gap between the network's viewers. Many of MTV's original subscribers often turn up their noses at the current version of the network, with its boy bands and suburban rappers and "Total Request Live."
There's no denying the network is a far cry from its launching pad days. Or is it?
Pittman says MTV has merely stayed the course, and its original viewers are no longer a part of the MTV demographic.
That includes Pittman, who no longer watches the network he helped create.
"I'm too old," says Pittman, 47. "I think MTV has fortunately stayed true to its mission, which was to be for young adults and teenagers and not for older people like me. I think there'd be something very wrong with it if I enjoyed it."
Graham also realizes the MTV world is not getting any older.
"I think they're going to keep targeting teenagers," she says. "That's what they've always done and that's what they do best.
"But having said that, I'm 30, and I watch it," Graham says. "MTV is cool. That's the bottom line."
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