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MTV at 25: From Upstart to Parent Network

Madonna poses at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 14, 1984. This was before she got into Kabbalah.
Madonna poses at the MTV Video Music Awards on Sept. 14, 1984. This was before she got into Kabbalah.

On this day 25 years ago, a cable channel called Music Television debuted, broadcasting "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles as its first video. The Buggles pretty much disappeared, but MTV became a behemoth. Today, the corporation owns more than 50 channels in 28 languages and 168 countries.

Some say that MTV has become much more about reality programming than about new music. Its long-running show The Real World debuted in 1992 and has been followed by a spate of other reality successes, such as Jackass, Pimp My Ride and Laguna Beach.

MTV President Christina Norman says the channel is still about music, pointing to sister channels such as MTV2 and MTVU (a college channel), and to MTV Overdrive, the network's online arm. Overdrive has 9,000 videos on demand, interviews, concert footage and news.

"Our audience spends just as much time on MTV Overdrive ... as they do watching Linear MTV, as we call it," Norman says.

MTV's expansion is not without its critics, who say the network is an example of a trend toward consolidation in the entertainment industry, resulting in less variety and fewer opportunities for artists. Paul Porter, a former program director at BET, points out that MTV's parent company, Viacom, also owns Infinity Radio, VH1 and BET.

"[If] you buy up all your competition," Porter says, "It's real easy to dominate a marketplace."

MTV's Norman counters that its reach allows the network to break independent artists in new ways, crediting MTVU's Spring Break as key venue for indie band Fall Out Boy last year.

Though MTV is now older than many of the people who appear on it, Norman says she does not worry about the network losing its cool, because the staff is utterly focused on its target audience. To stay abreast of the digital curve, MTV has partnered with Microsoft to start an online music downloading service called Urge.

MTV is also catching up with the success of MySpace and YouTube with a new interactive channel called Flux, available soon in the United Kingdom. Flux will let users blog from cell phones and add homemade videos to the mix.

It's a far cry from MTV's debut, when many video fans -- company president Christina Norman included -- had to visit a friend with cable TV in order to watch. Now, it's a lot easier to get MTV; as for the music videos themselves, that appears to be up for debate.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.