SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tomorrow, MTV will continue a 30-year tradition when it presents the annual "Video Music Awards."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "VIDEO MUSIC AWARDS")
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: And the winner is - Michael Jackson.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Nirvana.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Taylor Swift.
UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: The award goes to the fabulous Madonna.
SIMON: The awards pay homage - let me try that kind of emphasis - to the kind of television MTV pioneered that began more than three decades ago; all music videos, all the time.
But tune in today, you're more likely to see one of the network's eight reality shows - so-called reality shows - than any music videos. What happened to the M in MTV?
We spoke with Craig Marks, editor-in-chief of Spin magazine and co-author of the book "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story Of The Music Video Revolution." We asked him to take us back to 1981 and tell us what the new network thought it could do.
CRAIG MARKS: Well, the cable TV landscape then was very barren. There was HBO and CNN and that's about it. And there was very little programming at all for teenagers. And they had a brilliant idea, which was that they can get this free content - these music videos that record labels were sporadically making - and they can get the record companies to give them the videos for free, and they could create an entire industry out of that. And that is exactly what they did.
SIMON: Was "Thriller," in I guess, 1983, a big breakthrough?
MARKS: Yes, "Thriller" was. Michael Jackson was a breakthrough artist for MTV, and "Thriller," in a way, helped save MTV. They were not being carried by many cable distributors. Their advertising revenue was not so great. But "Thriller" was an event, and they would play the video every hour, on the hour.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THRILLER")
MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) 'Cause this is thriller, thriller night. There ain't no second chance against the thing with the 40 eyes, girl. Thriller, thriller night.
MARKS: Their ratings you know, went through the roof during the span of the "Thriller" video.
SIMON: And "Like A Virgin"? Madonna? Right?
MARKS: You know, people joked and Madonna joked that the M in MTV stood for Madonna.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIKE A VIRGIN")
MADONNA: (Singing) Like a virgin, touched for the very first time.
MARKS: She was synonymous with the channel. She grew up with the channel, and they symbiotically made each other the forces that they became.
SIMON: And how did this change music, do you think - or, at least the industry?
MARKS: Well, it certainly exploded the music industry. You know, people had a place - kids, particularly - had a place that they all could watch the same thing at the same time. And some of the artists even today that still sell out stadiums, like Bruce Springsteen, like Madonna, like Guns n' Roses - one of the reasons they have that staying power is because of the 1980s and MTV. And their videos were cultural events back then.
You know, some people complain that music videos themselves favored flash and looks and theatricality over musicality. And so there are a minority who contend that it didn't do well for music, but I think those people are old. And they're usually shouted down by others.
SIMON: Did the rise of music videos change what it is to be a pop star in this country?
MARKS: Absolutely. A lot of artists from the 1970s got left behind a bit when they either thought that music videos were beneath them, or when the audiences thought that these guys are kind of not very fun to look at. And so for a while, it seemed that unless you're willingly the game of - unless you're willing to dress up and perform for a camera and therefore for your fans - your music wasn't as relevant. You didn't have to be good-looking, you didn't have to be Madonna. If you wore a lot of makeup, and you looked like you were having fun dressing up, then MTV and its audience accepted you.
SIMON: So at what point did MTV's focus change?
MARKS: Music videos were a novelty and then they became less so. And MTV was beholding to record companies and the artists who were putting out records. And if big artists like Michael Jackson would take five years in between records, then their ratings dipped accordingly. And so they realized that they needed to make their own programming.
And so at first, they started doing it through kind of a sardonic game show called "Remote Control" back in 1987. And then they started programming other types of shows that were either gathered around music videos or around musicians. In 1992, they took the bold step of creating a show that had nothing to do with music called "The Real World."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE REAL WORLD")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: This is the true story...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: True story...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: ...Of seven strangers...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: ...Picked to live in a loft...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: ...And have their lives taped...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: ...To find out what happens...
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: What?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: ...When people stop being polite - (phone ringing) could you get the phone?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...And start getting real.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: "The Real World."
MARKS: They wanted it to be a soap opera, but they couldn't afford to create a real soap so instead, they put a bunch of people in a room and turned the cameras on. And that show did very well for MTV. And really, ever since then, the ratio of music videos to reality TV programming has changed dramatically.
SIMON: So do we see much music on MTV anymore?
MARKS: You will on Sunday night and that's about it. The strange thing about the "Video Music Awards" is that it honors a form that MTV has largely abandoned. People who want to watch music videos can do so on YouTube or any variety of services on the Internet. But what's missing is the idea of a fan discovering an artist through a music video. Back then, MTV would play a big band - let's say, Madonna - and then they'd play a smaller video and you would listen and watch both. Now if you want to watch a music video, you just go online and search for the artist that you're looking for. So that sense of discovery is gone now.
SIMON: Craig Marks, editor-in-chief at Spin magazine. Thanks so much for being with us.
MARKS: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.