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Will MTV Blow Off Its 35th Birthday?

By Edited Oct 15, 2016 2 2

Later this year, on August 1, 2016, MTV will reach its 35th anniversary of being on the air. A significant milestone, but will the channel be celebrating? If the philosophy is anything like it was when the network reached its 30th birthday, chances are, probably not.

MTV rocket launch
Credit: Photo credit: Screen shot from MTV clip on YouTube

Why MTV Felt 30 Years on Air Wasn't Worth Mentioning...

Many businesses tend to highlight special anniversaries, especially when associated with longevity. In the summer of 2011 music network MTV reached its 30th year on the air. Yet despite arriving at this noteworthy milestone, MTV decided to blow off its 30th birthday.

Some might wonder why a company would intentionally choose to completely overlook this milestone, but MTV had its reasons and it is not likely the network will mark this year and possibly not future birthdays either.   

History of MTV

In 1981 a new concept was born for television. The Music Television Channel, dubbed MTV, debuted on Aug. 1 of that year and a trend was born, forever altering how people viewed music. Viewers were immediately hooked to the new station that offered music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And, as a result, MTV had a dramatic impact on both the television and music industries.

Being the early 1980s, cable was not really mainstream at this point, and traditional television networks offered limited viewing time, many channels turned to "snow" by a certain hour. Back then channels weren't 24 hours a day or, if they were, had the late hour slots filled with infomercials. However, with the launch of cable, this changed the dynamics of how television was run. Sure, those infomercials are still running, but it was a lot easier to find plenty of programming at any hour of any day. 

MTV took on the 24/7, commercial-free format and the very first video, appropriately titled, "Video Killed the Radio Star" and sung by the Buggles, led to a new generation of music fans. The video was appropriate because MTV totally revolutionized how people were exposed to music. The catch phrase taken from MTV's marketing, "I want my MTV" became popularized too.

MTV's launch

As someone who watched this era unfold, it was hard for me to believe that MTV glossed over it, until I did some reading up on it. If you're wondering why MTV ignored its 30th birthday, read on...

Credit: Blude on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

MTV Blows Off 30th Anniversary Milestone

The industry has changed dramatically since the time The Music Television Channel launched back in 1981. While many across the globe who remembered the early days may have thought it to be a great milestone, MTV did not. Anyone hoping to see some nostalgic programming or other marking of its 30th birthday was sorely disappointed.

This lack of an acknowledgment was not an unintentional omission by the network, but a planned response. It seems MTV took the Peter Pan way of thinking and decided it never wanted to grow old. Reportedly, nothing pre-2009 was mentioned on the network's homepage on Aug. 1.

At the time Nathaniel Brown, senior vice president of communications for MTV, said:

"MTV as a brand doesn't age with our viewers," Brown said, adding, "We are really focused on our current viewers, and our feeling was that our anniversary wasn't something that would be meaningful to them, many of whom weren't even alive in 1981." (original Yahoo! article titled, "MTV Apparently Wants To Be 29 Forever" no longer appears to be online, however many copies of this statement remain in various corners of the web). [1]

This sentiment far cry from the days when Madonna, Metallica and Michael Jackson, to name two, gained their fame strutting their stuff and playing their music across millions of television screens. Consider that MJ's "Thriller", one of the top selling videos of all time, originated on MTV.

In a sense, MTV didn't completely blow off its 30th birthday, as the company outsourced these duties to sister channels VH1 and MTV2, along with some footage and mentions.

[ Related Reading: A Look at MTV's Effect on Music in the 1980s ]

Modern MTV

Today's MTV is nothing like the MTV of years past, and those old enough to remember the channel in its infancy instead of chanting "I want my MTV" have likely been thinking for years, "I miss my MTV". Instead of staying true to its roots, as it grew older, MTV went on to highlight a constant barrage of shows, such as "Jersey Shore" and other reality-type programming, all of which I am definitely not up to date on, but the current shows can easily be found front and center on MTVs home page.

For those fans of the original incarnation of MTV, those who remember the wonderment of music moving from albums, cassettes and radio to television, there likely is a strong level of nostalgia.  While back in 1981 video may have killed the radio star, in 2011, many Generation X members are probably wondering just exactly when did MTV kill the video star? Was it when "The Real World" debuted? Or did it really happen at some later date?

Digital is Where Its At

Whenever it happened, MTV appears to have somewhat abandoned its musical roots. It would be surprising if MTV did make 2016 the year to celebrate its early days. Admittedly, I haven't tuned in for years; I lost interest some time ago. As I was checking out the home page today, it still looks like it's diversifying away from music. "Shows" are the first thing in a visitor's face upon visiting the site (the "Music" tab is second, but I digress...).

Music aficionados have also been steadily been moving to newer forms of technology to listen to music. Even CDs, while likely around for years to come, are becoming antiquated. Portability has been around a long time, but things continue to change.

The industry is not what it was back in 1981 and digital content is now what's "in". In today's world, music videos on television don't captivate audiences the way they did 30 years ago. In 2011, YouTube was the place to go. [2]

Fast-forward to today and there are numerous ways people prefer to get their music, YouTube included, but streaming is still gaining ground. According to Nielsen:

"Americans streamed 164 billion on-demand tracks across audio and video platforms in 2014, up from 106 billion in 2013,", in a report dated January 22, 2015. [3]

Credit: Brian Teutsch on Flickr/CC by 2.0

And MTV is seemingly trying to reinvent itself again in order to attract audiences with new types of programming, and it's not focused on music or reality TV. In January 2016 MTV launched its latest programming, The Shannara Chronicles, "its lavish TV adaptation of a series of swords-and-sorcery novels by Terry Brooks", reported Billboard in July 2015. [5]

For the die-hards still wanting to catch tunes on TV many carriers have other niche-oriented channels their customers can tune in to. (This would be me, I like to listen to 1970s stuff on television when I'm working, it's just convenient, plays steadily and I never know what song is coming on next...).

And, of course, there is still an alternative in YouTube, which maybe in some way contributed to finish killing off the television video star, but that is another story altogether.

Update: Well, it looks like MTV did acknowledge its birthday and even celebrated...sort of. The brand took its VH1 Classic channel and renamed it MTV classic. Its first hour on the air mirrored that of the original MTV's first hour in 1981, but that doesn't seem to be its long-term vision. According to media reports, the newly rebranded station will be targeting millenials and their nostalgia for the 1990s and early 2000s, playing TV shows and music from those years. Here was the promo aired:




Feb 27, 2016 9:29am
While once relevant and trendsetting MTV is no longer either. I can't think of anyone who looks to it these days and says, "Hey, didja see on MTV last night . . . ?" Their philosophy of living to please only their current audience (whom I'm guessing is reduced mostly to rweens who don't know any better and shut-ins) is stupid.

A once great concept was ruined a couple of decades ago when some idiot decided to focus on everything BUT what had made MTV great: music!

They SHOULD rightfully ignore their 35th birthday simply because, for the majority of those intervening years, there is nothing WORTHY of pointing up and celebrating.

Good article, though, and a thumb.
Feb 29, 2016 4:15am
That's a fair point. I'd agree there isn't much to celebrate these days. They should just drop the "M" altogether and rebrand..

I can sort of get why maybe they'd shift from music in recent years due to the new ways people listen to try and stay afloat, but they started their derailment long ago before these were invented. Heck, they started before the Internet was even mainstream.

Thanks for reading! The comment and the thumb too
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  1. "MTV Apparently Wants To Be 29 Forever." Google Groups. 02/08/2011. 13/01/2016 <Web >
  2. "Study: More People Watch Music On YouTube Than Download It." TIME. 13/01/2016 <Web >
  3. "Everyone Listens to Music, But How We Listen is Changing." Nielsen. 25/01/2015. 13/01/2016 <Web >
  4. "MTV." MTV. 13/01/2016 <Web >
  5. "How MTV Is Trying to Reinvent Itself to Combat Sinking Ratings and Disinterested Teens." Billboard. 17/07/2015. 14/01/2016 <Web >
  6. "Happy 35th birthday MTV, here's the first video you ever played." Billboard. 1/08/2016. 15/10/2016 <Web >
  7. "MTV is launching a nostalgic, 90's inspired channel, MTV Classic." Paste. 28/07/2016. 15/10/2016 <Web >

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