x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Thirty years on, we still want our MTV

The revolutionary music-video channel marks its 30th anniversary.

It was a simple concept: a channel dedicated to playing music videos 24 hours a day. The idea was to screen back-to-back music videos and have them interrupted only by commentary from on-air personalities, who would be called "Video Jockeys".

But from humble beginnings MTV grew to become an entertainment powerhouse, a music trendsetter, and a platform for releasing some of the most ground-breaking music videos to more than 340 million viewers. As the American music network celebrates its 30th anniversary, the channel will celebrate by broadcasting some of that early coverage.

As well as clips of awards shows and previous MTV specials, its sister channel VH1 will play the first hour of its debut broadcast as well as classic programmes such as Headbangers Ball and early VJ segments.

A wise choice, perhaps, because while MTV is now frequently criticised for resorting to punking stars, pimping rides and low-grade reality television to draw in viewers, it is easy to forget that its influence continues to reverberate within music, television and film circles. Not to mention its international reach. While the original MTV broadcast can be seen on screens in dozens of foreign countries, there are also offshoots such as MTV Arabia, now in its fifth year.

To fully appreciate MTV's success one must cast an eye back to the relatively barren television entertainment landscape before 1981.

It was a time when music fans had to make do with seeing their favourite artists appearing in bland matinée and late-night variety shows. The media executive Robert Pittman was keenly aware of this gap. Before pioneering the original format for MTV, he test-drove a similar music-video concept in the late 1970s on the cable channel WNBC as producer and host of the 15 minute show Album Tracks.

HBO was among the other channels that experimented with the format with Video Jukebox, a half-hour programme of continuous music videos and which placed clips as filler between movies. But until MTV, no one had ventured into the uncharted ground of round-the-clock music videos.

Hence the classic words uttered to launch the MTV network at 12.01am on August 1, 1981: "Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll".

The words played as images of the Apollo 11 moon-landing were displayed, but with the American flag replaced with MTV's.

It was an ambitious statement for a channel being carried in a select few US cities, but it was indicative of the hip, cocksure attitude that would come to define the channel.

Perhaps it was this attitude that informed the choice of the first video to be broadcast on the channel: Video Killed the Radio Star by the synth-pop group The Buggles.

The format influenced musical tastes almost immediately - a sure sign of success. Record stores in American cities where MTV was broadcast saw customers seeking recordings of more obscure acts such as the Australian rockers Men at Work and new-wave acts like Bow Wow Wow and The Human League.

Ever sensitive to shifting trends, those within the music industry, including the bands themselves, began paying more attention to music videos. The Cars (with their song Drive), Duran Duran (with Hungry Like the Wolf) and a sprightly young Madonna (with hits that just kept coming) all created innovative clips to attract audiences.

The music-video channel inspired other wellsprings of creativity, too: It became a forum in which aspiring filmmakers such as Michel Gondry (Lenny Kravtiz's Believe), Spike Jonze (Buddy Holly by Weezer) and David Fincher (Rick Springfield's Dance This World Away) honed their craft before going on to successful film careers.

But the growing influence came hand-in-hand with criticism. In 1983, Rolling Stone magazine published a piece warning that the channel was blurring the lines between music and marketing. The most serious charge, however, was the station's apparent reluctance to add videos by African-American artists to its video playlist. With the exception of Eddy Grant, Tina Turner and Donna Summer, black artists were rarely seen on the screens, as they were deemed not to be a match with the station's rock mandate at the time.

The situation came to a head in 1983 when CBS Records criticised the channel for not playing the video clip to Michael Jackson's Billie Jean. The channel eventually relented, paving the way for other artists, including Prince and Whitney Houston. The following decades, which saw the emergence of grunge, nu-metal and hip-hop, fuelled the channel's power and its reach in the form of its newly launched sister channels. Some would argue, too, that what has come to be sacrificed over time is MTV's musical ethos.

Video clips are rarely played now on the main channel and instead of performances, pop stars appear more frequently to plug their lifestyles as opposed to their music. And the harshest criticism launched against the channel: its decision to broadcast scripted reality shows such as The Real World and Jersey Shore, which, some argue, has created pop stars out of talentless teenagers.

Brood all you want about these dark matters later, though, when MTV resumes its normal broadcasts after tomorrow's celebrations. Till then, we should party like it's 1981: a time when the cassette was king and reality television was best thought of as the news.