July 15, 2001 12:00 PM

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll!” With those words, spoken by MTV cofounder John Lack at the stroke of midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, the first television channel devoted entirely to pop music roared from the launching pad. The video clip that followed—”Video Killed the Radio Star,” by a minor British band called the Buggles—was one of roughly 120 that MTV’s original five VJs had to choose from. At a time when the Big Three networks still ruled the airwaves, Music Television was the TV equivalent of a homemade rocket: noisy, wobbly and thrown together from scraps.

Twenty years and thousands of videos later, MTV is a mighty mother ship beaming down a kaleidoscopic array of programming, from game shows to political forums to bawdy nighttime soaps. It has spun off splinter channels (VH1 and MTV2) and gobbled up other cable networks along the way, including Nickelodeon and Country Music Television. Broadcast to 79 million homes in the U.S. and 271 million elsewhere, MTV is now seen in 140 countries—roughly 70 percent of the world. Local versions have sprung up from Japan to Brazil, Australia to India. As a sideline, the network produces feature films (including such hits as Beavis and Butt-head Do America and Save the Last Dance). Its empire generates reported annual revenues of $3 billion.

But MTV is more than a corporate powerhouse. It can claim two decades’ worth of bragging rights as a breeding ground for stars and trends. Its progeny range from Madonna, rising like a Venus from the primordial sea of video imagery, to Britney Spears, a teen goddess for the new millennium. With 1988’s Yo! MTV Raps, it brought hip-hop into the mainstream; with 1992’s The Real World, it laid the groundwork for reality television. Such disparate figures as Adam Sandler and Bill Clinton have boosted their careers by appearing on the network. “All roads lead to MTV,” says Doug Herzog, former president of MTV production (and now president of USA Network). “It’s not just music—it’s politics, fashion, sports, movies.”

Of course, MTV has changed the way we experience music and the way musicians compose it: A pop song is now something to be viewed as well as listened to. “We just had a meeting with Eminem and Pink,” says current MTV president Van Toffler. “For all their future records, they’re thinking about, ‘What will the video look like?’ ” But the look of MTV has also changed the way we see most everything else. The quick-cut, candy-colored surrealism of videos can be discerned from TV commercials to movies like Moulin Rouge. The impact can even be felt in the declining numbers of Little Leaguers. One academic speculates that the zip of videos makes baseball seem as slow as chess.

MTV’s founders never dreamed they were starting a pop-cultural revolution. “We just had this cool idea we wanted to put on television,” says John Sykes, who came on board as a 26-year-old director of promotions and is now president of VH1. Headed initially by Bob Pittman, then 27 and vice president of new programming at Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment (he’s now co-chief operating officer of AOL Time Warner, PEOPLE’s parent company), MTV started as a cheap way to create programming for cable providers. Pittman recalls putting together a presentation for the Warner Amex executives: “We thought these guys wouldn’t understand rock. So we decided we’d play Olivia Newton-John [videos] and all this really schmaltzy stuff.” At the end of the meeting, one executive carped, “Do you have to play all that noise?” But the suits were ultimately sold on MTV’s grand plan—to marry rock and TV, then “the greatest forces in American culture,” says Sykes.

First, though, the new channel would have to find videos—at the time a rarity in the States—and an audience. The former were scrounged mostly from Europe, where they played in record stores. As for viewers, MTV could initially be seen in only 2 million homes, mainly in the Midwest. It wasn’t even carried in Manhattan, where the channel set up headquarters in a cramped suite of offices. (The staff had to go to a bar in Fort Lee, N.J., to watch the opening broadcast.) Veterans of those days compare the seat-of-the-pants fun to the dot-com boom of the ’90s. “It was all that startup stuff,” says Tom Freston, who began as a 35-year-old regional marketing director and today is chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, “the late nights eating pizza, the missionary belief everybody had in what we were doing.”

Converts soon appeared. During the first year, Sykes and Freston went on scouting trips to see if MTV was catching on. “One day we were in Tulsa,” says Sykes. “At our third record store a clerk said, ‘You guys are with MTV? God, I just sold a case of Buggies albums because of that song ‘Video Killed the Radio Star.’ We said, ‘Hallelujah!’ ” Naysayers might have expected yawns in response to the endless recycling of a few videos, but according to Sykes, “we found that people were captivated and would watch them over and over.”

Rockers, especially those who knew how to strike a pose, quickly realized that they needed their MTV. Billy Idol’s career took off in 1982 after he displayed his snarling lip and albino-hedgehog hair in the videos for “White Wedding” and “Dancing with Myself.” Says Idol: “It was just 24 hours of you, you, you, you in people’s living rooms.” Madonna, Prince, the Police and John Mellencamp are just a few of the artists whose video savvy was key to their stardom. Sales of Michael Jackson’s hit Thriller exploded after the video began airing. Less photogenic radio stars met the fate prophesied by the Buggies. MTV “never wrote, never called,” says Christopher Cross, a platinum-selling master of soft pop (“Sailing”) who fell from the charts shortly after the network launched.

MTV’s success afforded its staffers a status just below rock royalty. Freston remembers thinking, as he shared a sauna in Gstaad, Switzerland, with David Bowie and Paul McCartney, “I’m getting paid for this?” Yet with triumph came new troubles. “Before us,” says Doug Herzog, “there was no such thing as a network with attitude.” Soon shows shaped by video style appeared on every network (NBC’s Miami Vice was envisioned as “MTV Cops”). By the mid-’80s, as hordes of competitors wooed its young audience, MTV found its ratings sagging.

And so the network reinvented itself. The harbinger, in 1987, was the pop-trivia show Remote Control. Since then, MTV has produced scores of series, with videos a diminishing presence. They aren’t even shown in full on the hit request show Total Request Live (or TRL), known less for music than for its appealing host, Carson Daly. Along with The Real World, MTV’s hits have included House of Style (which Cindy Crawford did for free, just to get TV experience) and the current gross-out extravaganza Jackass, starring Johnny Knoxville. Some of the flops deserve credit for freakish daring. “There was Sifyl & Oily” says MTV Networks president Judy McGrath, “by these two guys with sock puppets. I was like, ‘Please! Somebody love this!’ ”

And if you don’t love MTV? Anyone who has been watching for the past two decades might be excused for thinking the call letters now stand for “My Teenage Vacation,” considering how much airtime is devoted to VJs lounging poolside in sunny Florida. Well, the cruel truth is this: Those observers are just too ancient to matter. The average age of the MTV viewer remains, as it has always been, a few months shy of 21. Back in the beginning, says Bob Pittman, “we had to decide, ‘Are we going to grow old with this [audience], so when they’re 50 years old they’ll still be watching MTV?’ And we decided: ‘We don’t want to grow old.’ ”

MTV has found the fountain of youth, and it is pop.

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