Putting the “M” in MTV

How one man transformed a dying channel, and sparked a legacy

Katie Morrison

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll…”

These words launched the reign of MTV. An initialism of Music Television, the network stepped up to fill a void on cable television. One minute after midnight on August 1, 1981, the channel aired its first music video.

MTV’s audience might not remember the days when the channel was dedicated to broadcasting music videos day and night.

“Music videos? I thought ‘16 & Pregnant’ was MTV’s only show,” says Brett Trana, a freshman computing major.

MTV claimed “rock music” was their playlist and that would not change. Their definition of rock was narrow and excluded other genres like R&B, disco and rap. For the first few years, the network promoted artists like Pat Benatar, David Bowie and The Pretenders. But it was uncommon to see videos featuring African Americans.

They managed to reject videos from African American artists in the name of maintaining that stance. In 1983, MTV could no longer deny the persuasion and popularity of Michael Jackson. After being called out by several artists and the president of CBS Records, MTV aired the music video “Billie Jean,” and Michael Jackson exploded onto the scene.

Before this point, MTV had been struggling. Their popularity had yet to grow and their refusal to broaden the genre of music didn’t help. Once “Billie Jean” aired, the viewers took notice. Michael Jackson blasted the doors open for other African American artists as well as an entirely new group of musicians. His videos upped the game by being elaborate and expensive. Music videos had basically been glorified concert footage. They were cheaply made and not at all reaching their potential. Michael Jackson, with his $150,000 video for “Beat It,” proved that music videos could be more than a promotional tool.

Some only remember Jackson for the events later in his life, but maybe we should also remember why he’s called the King of Pop. His music was not simply rock; it was not purely dance. It was a movement and an art. Through his videos, he challenged genre categories and inspired others to be better.

“Michael Jackson had a huge impact on me as a musician,” says Mikey Archibeque, a senior theology major. “He made some terrible life choices, but he had charisma and talent. I’ve always respected him in that.”

His death triggered music video marathons on MTV in a time when reality shows reigned. He bent prejudices and endured the music industry’s good and bad for his entire life.

Katie is a junior studying business administration.