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MTV Turns 25

Twenty-five years ago this week, MTV -- short for music television -- premiered on cable television in the U.S. It began by broadcasting music videos from popular artists such as Madonna and Michael Jackson, but has since branched into talk shows, documentaries, and reality-based programming. VOA's George Dwyer looks back at how MTV has influenced the music business, television, and the culture at large.

MTV -- the U.S. based music television channel -- aired its first program 25 years ago this week. Since then it has added more than 50 channels in 28 languages and 168 countries, becoming a global communications phenomenon.

"I can attest to that,” says Ray McDonald, who covers the music industry for Voice of America. “My wife is from India and I have been back there seven times. And MTV not only broadcasts on an Indian channel, it has also spawned imitators."

Ray says MTV’s cultural influence over the past 25 years has been extraordinary.

"MTV has become the look of modern American pop culture. It has affected our buying patterns. It has affected the clothes we buy. It has affected youth culture, top to bottom. And that is MTV's greatest strength, its brand integrity."

MTV started off just playing music videos, but today it devotes more airtime to other types of programming, including news and drama. Many credit MTV with starting the reality television craze, a form of programming much in demand among younger viewers. That move reflects MTV's understanding that many in its audience today were not even born when it first went on the air in 1981.

"MTV is number one among 12 to 24-year-old viewers. These are people for whom Madonna and Michael Jackson are ancient history," says Ray.

Those nostalgic for MTV as it once was will undoubtedly remember famous live performances such as one from 1984, by a then new-to-the-scene Madonna. Its Video Music Awards have provided the backdrop for some of modern music's most iconic moments. But MTV's stronghold on the music video audience is now facing serious challenges, says VOA's McDonald.

"MTV faces 21st century competition such as youtube, which is an Internet site that carries videos of all kinds. And as a matter of fact, Viacom -- MTV's parent company -- their stock has dropped about 20 percent this year on perceived fears that these competitors are cutting into MTV's advertising."

Comedian Kathy Griffith has been a regular on MTV over the years. She thinks its influence on music and television will remain strong. "MTV is still the cool place. It's what the kids are watching. Many, many artists want to be on MTV for almost no cost because you want to get that demographic."

MTV has been low-key about its birthday this week -- preferring to focus on a youth audience, the demographic that has always defined its most fanatic followers.