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Tuesday, 31 July, 2001, 23:16 GMT 00:16 UK
MTV's irresistible rise
MTV graphic
MTV's fresh approach to pop music changed lives
For a generation of music fans, 1 August 1981 was to be defining moment. The sound of the Buggles' cult-hit Video Killed The Radio Star pulsated out from TV screens across the US.

But not only that, the "wacky" antics and personas of the band could also be seen in glorious, absorbing colour.

Welcome to the birth of MTV, the original non-stop pop music video channel.

The Who
The Who were among the first to appear on MTV

Its launch marked a new era in the promotion, consumption and power of pop music among the record-buying young, and coined the expression the "MTV generation".

Since its launch, MTV has spread into 342 million homes, branched out from pop and become a multi-million dollar enterprise, owned by Viacom.

However, as August dawned two decades ago, the New Jersey cable outlet, begun by Warner Communications and American Express, had fewer than one million viewers.

Word spread among its target 12-24 year-olds about the star guests and cutting edge style of the channel.

Within a few months, viewership had grown to more than two million. Two years on, the expansion of cable TV took MTV into more than 10 million homes.


Until MTV, music TV had consisted mainly of the odd, bland appearance of bands on entertainment shows. And the power of multi-channel radio in the US had never been seriously challenged.

But MTV's personal and "on-demand" approach to music wooed the young and, as a result, the industry movers and shakers as well.

Michael Jackson's Thriller video
Michael Jackson's Thriller video was a ground-breaking piece

In 20 years, there have been numerous landmark events in MTV's history. But all symbolise the channel's irresistible rise and influence.

A year later and New Romantic star Adam Ant became the station's first VJ, or video jockey, between clips.

These high-profile guests highlighted the growing awareness of the music industry of the channel's influence on sales.

Even in those early days, hit UK band Dire Straits was singing about the MTV phenomenon in Money For Nothing.

At its start, most of the artists on MTV were white, which became a point of contention. In 1983, the issue was confronted head-on by Michael Jackson and his 14-minute video for Thriller.

Though Michael Landis' epic was to become MTV's most requested clip, the channel initially refused to air it.

"They said it was too long. So, Jackson threatened to cause a boycott of the channel by his label Epic, which handled many of the industry's major acts," says Simon Warner, pop music lecturer at Leeds University.


It also led to Jackson's Thriller album selling more than 800,000 copies a week. The MTV effect on sales did not go unnoticed and was to be capitalised on from then on.

"Music fans began to expect songs to have images - glossy ones too - otherwise they would not succeed," said Mr Warner.

Madonna knew how to appeal to the video generation

"So record companies had to start adding at least 50,000 to an artist's marketing budget to make that essential video," he added.

In the early 80s, it was the British New Romantics, such as Adam and the Ants and Duran Duran, who benefited most from MTV.

Many had been producing music videos for a number of years - a legacy of their art college backgrounds.

But, along with Jackson, US artists were soon to catch on. Madonna can be held-up as one of the greatest MTV success stories.

From Holiday through to MTV's first screening of her controversial Like A Prayer video, Madonna was a video creation as much as a singing star.

And in latter years, Britney Spears, Eminem and the Spice Girls have become global superstars through the constant airing of their videos.


By the end of the 80s, MTV and the pop industry had a mutually dependent relationship.

The creation of the now coveted annual MTV Video Music Awards in 1984 fuelled the fire. Memorable winners include Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer and Losing My Religion by REM.

Live Aid
Live Aid: One of MTV's first politically-driven broadcasts

In 1985, it broadcast the whole of the Live Aid concert - for famine relief in Ethiopia.

In 1989 it went political, broadcasting live from behind the iron curtain. And in 1992, it carried coverage of the US Presidential election - to encourage the young to vote.

The launch of MTV Europe in 1987 added more than 1.6 million households to MTV's subscription list.

In 1992, its fly-on-the-wall series Real World created "reality TV" - nine years before Big Brother.

It also brought us the inimitable Beavis and Butt-head and Celebrity Deathmatch animations.


And the growth continues. MTV was the first music channel to launch on the web in 1996.

A year later, it launched MTV UK and Ireland and it has grown into a business and brand in its own right called MTV Networks.

Britney Spears
Britney Spears: One of MTV's latest stars

MTV Networks encompasses spin-offs and digital channels such as MTV2, MTV Dance and MTV Base.

In 2000, it made revenues of $3.04bn. But with the growth of digital cable and more channels, MTV could face a tough challenge.

Rival German station Viva is already a competitor in five European countries. AOL Time Warner is discussing launching its a rival music channel.

But MTV, which describes itself as the biggest youth broadcaster in the world, remains jovial. Plans for further expansion have been mooted.

And with analysts forecasting a 10% increase in its cash flow this year, the immediate future looks bright.

The BBC's Joe Episcopo
"MTV's cultural impact has been huge"
The NME's Andre Paine
"There are certain scenes that thrive without the support of MTV"
See also:

05 Jul 01 | TV and Radio
MTV aims for Big Breakfast slot
03 Jun 01 | Film
In pictures: MTV Movie Awards
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