MTV at 25: From Upstart to Parent Network 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.
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MTV at 25: From Upstart to Parent Network

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MTV at 25: From Upstart to Parent Network

MTV at 25: From Upstart to Parent Network

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Twenty-five years ago today, a brand new cable channel debuted with this music video.

(Soundbite of song, Video Killed the Radio Star)

THE BUGGLES (Pop Group): (Singing) Video killed the radio star. Video killed the radio star. In my mind and in my car. We can't rewind, we've gone too far.

MONTAGNE: That was the Buggles. And the channel, of course, was MTV. Today, the corporation known as MTV Networks owns more than 50 channels in 28 languages in 168 countries. NPR's Neda Ulaby has this look at MTV's beginnings and at it's future.

(Soundbite of music)

NEDA ULABY reporting:

It's hard to imagine a world without MTV, or that it once seemed like a stupid idea.

Mr. ROB PITTMAN (Creator of MTV): People said music wouldn't work on TV. Music was meant to be heard and not seen.

ULABY: That's the creator of MTV, Rob Pittman, speaking to NPR back in 1983. In those days, it wasn't always easy for teenagers to get their MTV.

Ms. CHRISTINA NORMAN (President, MTV): I didn't have cable, so I went to my friend's house and I would just camp out there and just wait for this Bryan Ferry video to come on.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BRYAN FERRY (Singer): (Singing) (Unintelligible) in the usual place. Till the time with her, there's no escape.

ULABY: Christina Norman is now 42 years old, and she likes to joke she can watch the Bryan Ferry video whenever she wants. Norman became MTV's president last year. She says young people's lives are still defined by music, but in the year 2006 the way they get it has completely changed.

Ms. NORMAN: You know, so today, for example, our audience spends just as much time on MTV Overdrive - which is our broadband channel - as they doing watching linear MTV, as we call it.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: MTV Overdrive has 9,000 videos on demand - interviews, concert footage and news, all free and mere mouse clicks away.

Unidentified Man: So what it is, you are watching a big 10 on MTV Overdrive. Stay your (censored) right there.

ULABY: MTV has retooled for a generation that routinely streams videos while instant messaging, checking e-mail, and downloading music all at the same time. The original cable channel is today dominated by reality shows, a genre for which we have MTV in large part to thank. Carol Candolera(ph) worked at the network back when the seminal reality series The Real World was first pitched as a soap opera. She says for all of the Real World's unruly scenes of drinking and hot tubbing, its basic premise - seven strangers living together - today seems rather mild.

Ms. CAROL CANDOLARA (Former MTV Employee): And to see a show like Sweet 16, where teenagers are, you know, beating down their parents, shaking them down for six figures for a car and a birthday party. You're watching it thinking this is ridiculous.

(Soundbite of show, Sweet 16)

Unidentified Woman: The BMW is my grand (unintellgible) either. God, I have to have it. I have to have the BMW X5.

ULABY: Shows like My Super Sweet 16 are not entirely representative of MTV's programming says it's president Christina Norman. MTV switched to reality shows in large part to reduce channel surfing and attract more deep-pocketed advertisers. If you miss music videos on MTV's flagship channel, Norman advises looking elsewhere.

Ms. NORMAN: I think we play more music videos now than ever before. You know, remember, there was just one MTV way back in the day. Now there's MTV 2, there's MTVU - our college channel - MTV Tres, which is a re-launch of MTV Espanol that's happening in September. We've got the MTV world platform, which is MTV Desi and Chi.

ULABY: Those last two channels - which are not on basic cable - target Indian and Chinese-Americans respectively. A new channel for Korean-Americans premiered last month.

MTV VJ: I am very honored to present the very first video on MTV K - (foreign language spoken), here's BoA with her video, My Name.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: With international channels from Romania to New Zealand, MTV has been a pioneer in creating global networks says John McMurria. He's a communications professor at DePaul University who specializes in television culture. He says MTV faces more competition abroad from independent youth-oriented channels than it does here at home. Rather than imposing a homogenous global brand, MTV Networks has learned to partner with existing music industries in various countries. And McMurria says the process of assimilation goes both ways.

Professor JOHN MCMURRIA (Communications, DePaul University): While MTV represents this commercialized, consumerist youth culture, it also has been central in terms of bringing different international groups to the U.S. attention.

(Soundbite of music)

ULABY: Russian MTV, for example, deserves credit for brining us Tatu in 2002. Shakira - a Columbian star with perhaps more lasting appeal - crossed over six years ago after performing on MTV Unplugged. Those artists were already hugely popular in their home countries, and U.S. media critic Paul Porter charges that MTV does little to encourage independent music.

Mr. PAUL PORTER (U.S. Media Critic): The record companies and the video channels work hand in hand.

ULABY: Porter is a former BET program director who's since co-founded a think tank called Industry Ears. He says MTV is primarily concerned with advancing its corporate interests.

Mr. PORTER: Infinity Radio's owned by Viacom, who owns VH1 and BET and MTV. You know, and MTV owns Nickelodeon. So wow, you buy up all your competition, it's real easy to dominate a marketplace.

ULABY: But MTV does still break indie bands, insists it's president, Christina Norman.

Ms. NORMAN: Fall Out Boy did break.

(Soundbite of music)

FALL OUT BOY (Rock): (Singing) We're going down, down in an earlier round. And sugar, we're going down swinging.

Ms. NORMAN: Fall Out Boy was an indie band last year when they started out on MTVU. They played MTVU spring break. They were on so many different MTV shows over the past year.

ULABY: And they've also had two top ten hits. But in an era of YouTube and MySpace, the company has struggled to adapt. MTV is launching a new interactive channel in the United Kingdom called Flux that will attempt to combine features of MySpace and YouTube. And it's partnering with Microsoft to provide music for the so-called iPod killer. MTV president Christina Norman says staying current is a constant concern.

Ms. NORMAN: I was in a Dunkin' Donuts in Brooklyn a couple of weeks ago, and these two girls are sitting there listening to Christina Aguilera's new song on their cell phone. And I accosted them and wanted to know like, did you download the video? Where did you get this content? What do you - what do you buy a lot of music on your phone? You know, we spend a lot of time talking to young people online, in person - it's what we do. It's our - it's our mission.

ULABY: And it's a mission that hasn't gotten any easier now that the corporation is older than its target demographic. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Do your thing, honey.

Ms. CHRISTINA AGUILERA (Singer): (Singing) I can feel it for (unintellgible)…

MONTAGNE: And wonder what became of Martha Quinn, Adam Curry, and others vintage MTV personalities? Find out at our Web site, This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Don Gonyea.

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