When MTV first launched on August 1, 1981, skeptics emerged from the woodwork to say that the channel would never last. With only a few dozen videos on hand (many by Rod Stewart) and a lack of availability in some parts of the country, the channel nevertheless forged ahead. In doing so, it became one of the prime drivers of culture for Generation X. While today’s version of the channel simply seems to be a receptacle for endless reruns of Ridiculousness, there was a time when MTV’s programming shook the zeitgeist. Here are 10 shows that made MTV Matter.
1. Yo! MTV Raps (Original run: 1988-1995)
Created by director Ted Demme and Peter Dougherty, and launched with pilot hosts Run DMC, the debut of Yo! MTV Raps drew some of the biggest ratings the channel had ever seen. It became an MTV staple, introducing (let’s face it) white suburban kids to a panorama of hip-hop talent. For a channel that launched with a dearth of videos by Black artists, Yo! permanently changed the game.
2. Headbangers Ball (Original run: 1987-1995)
The new wave of British heavy metal arrived just in time for the rise of MTV. With various regional metal scenes making their moves in the States, notably in L.A., it wasn’t long before big riffs and big hair stormed the channel. Accordingly, MTV created a Saturday night showcase for the sound. Since 2011, a version of HB has existed on the MTV website.
3. 120 Minutes (Original run: 1986-2000; 2001-2003 on MTV2)
Another “catching the wave” show centered on a particular genre, 120 Minutes showed videos from post-modern/college rock, or as they would more popularly become known, alternative, artists. The show saw acts like The Cure and R.E.M. emerge to global stardom, but no one really expected the “alternative explosion” that took place in 1991, shortly after the show debuted the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana.
4. Dial MTV/MTV’s Most Wanted/Total Request Live (TRL) (Combined run: 1986-2008)
Calling in your requests has a long and distinguished lineage in popular music, running from radio through American Bandstand right into MTV. MTV codified the request show into their lore with the number 1-800-DIAL-MTV for a popular sequence of shows that began in the 1980s. Metal ruled much of that decade, but by the time the request show had morphed into Total Request Live, it beheld the rebirth of teen pop. With host Carson Daly at the helm, the show hit its peak of popular as Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and more took over the channel.
5. The Real World (Original run: 1992-2017)
The Real World wasn’t the original reality show (that was likely PBS’s An American Family in 1973). But The Real World did create many of the staples of the modern version of the genre: strangers chosen to live together, confessional booths, events/challenges/trips meant to foster conflict, etc. The original seven (Norman, Becky, Heather, Eric, Kevin, Julie, and Andre) were in completely uncharted waters, and much of their season orbited around what it was like to try to make it as an artist while also confronting preconceptions and prejudices. Norman Korpi was the first LGBTQ cast member, and he paved the way for numerous others; among them was Season 3’s Pedro Zamora, a gay Cuban-American man who put a face on the AIDS crisis for young America. While the show descended over time into being more about drama and hook-ups than issues, a reunion of the original cast on Paramount+ this year (The Real World Homecoming: New York) highlighted how ahead of its time the show was in dealing with issues of racism and sexuality.
6. MTV News/The Week in Rock
The MTV News brand still exists, but the original late ’80s program, The Week in Rock, later simply renamed MTV News, delved into, well, everything. Although primarily concerned with music, the news eventually branched into fashion, technology, sex, health, and politics. MTV’s “Choose or Lose” programming aimed to get young people involved in politics by, at the very least, educating themselves about issues. During the 1992 campaign, Bill Clinton appeared in a live Q&A on the channel to take questions from concerned young voters. Over time, other figures like Newt Gingrich, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama would appear on the channel. One of the most famous faces of MTV News was journalist and author Kurt Loder; it was Loder that famously broke into regular programming with the news of Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994.
7. MTV Unplugged (Original run: 1989-1999)
It’s the simplest of simple ideas: have musicians play acoustically. The original episode from November 26, 1989, included Syd Straw, Elliot Easton from The Cars, and the band Squeeze. Appearances by the likes of R.E.M. and Paul McCartney bolstered the concept. McCartney, Mariah Carey, 10,000 Maniacs, Eric Clapton, and more began to have great success with CD releases of their appearances on the show. The series became a platform for significant reunions, including Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin in 1994 and the original members of KISS (leading to a full-blown in-make-up tour and reunion) in 1995. However, the episode considered by many critics to be the greatest and most poignant was taped in November of 1993 and broadcast a month later; that was the Nirvana episode, which showed a completely different side of the band and highlighted the talent and vocal power of Kurt Cobain.
8. The Half Hour Comedy Hour (Original run: 1988-1993)
Comedy shows were everywhere on the dial in the 1980s, but MTV threw a spotlight on young comics in particular. The series became a place to see a lot of developing talent before they were snatched up by other entities, including future cast members of Saturday Night Live and In Living Color. Jon Stewart’s appearances helped pave the way for his own MTV talk show. Future director Judd Apatow would show off his comedic sensibilities. Margaret Cho appeared before headlining All-American Girl, the first network sitcom in the States to feature an Asian-American family.
9. Liquid Television (Original run: 1991-1995)
MTV’s innovative animation showcase was the launch-pad of a number of separate shows that first saw sequential life as shorts on the program. Among the most popular was the sci-fi serial Aeon Flux by Peter Chung; it received its own series and was eventually made into a live-action film with Charlize Theron. Anime master Yoshiaki Kawajiri (of Ninja Scroll and more) contributed the short, “Running Man.” But the biggest graduate of the series is undoubtedly Mike Judge; he debuted both his character Milton and the duo of Beavis and Butt-Head on the show. A live-action Milton would be part of Judge’s cult classic Office Space, and Beavis and Butt-Head would become one of MTV’s most popular programs; B&B also produced an extremely popular spin-off, Daria.
“Golf Course Airhorn” from Jackass: The Movie (Uploaded to YouTube by Movieclips)
10. Jackass (Original run: 2000-2002)
Well, they can’t all be meaningful. Regardless, the stunt/prank/comedy show became hugely popular, inspired a number of spin-offs, and produced three (with a fourth pending) theatrical films. And it did give the world “Golf Course Airhorn.”
Featured image: Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com
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