WHEN Music Television Video (MTV) first flash-danced onto American TV in 1981, its rapid-fire images of rock bands began a mass-media cultural revolution.
From Michael Jackson's ''Thriller'' video in 1983 to pop star Madonna to grunge-rockers Pearl Jam, artists have influenced musical tastes, dance crazes, fashion, and idioms from Syracuse to Sacramento.
The American pop-music network has expanded into news, promotions, interviews, sex education -- even politics. Not everyone is crazy about it. The videos have been criticized for shortening attention spans, violence, sexism, raunchiness, and giving the poor alluring images of wealth.
But the channel has been undeniable successful. Now the company is taking the same concept of youth-oriented programming around the world -- as fast as pizza-size satellite dishes can go up. It's launched MTV channels in Europe, Latin America, Brazil, and Japan. Two in Asia are next.
Today MTV programming reaches 251.4 million households in 64 territories on four continents -- even dirt farmers in remote villages. Japanese students who appear on MTV Japan are shown sporting Jamaican caps with long Rastafarian braids attached.
MTV executives attribute this rapid success to their philosophy of localized programming; their version of ''think globally, act locally.''
''We go to the street, do a lot of research,'' says Tom Hunter, senior vice-president of international operations. ''Some of it is formal, carefully conducted research. We spend a lot of money, find out what they want. We also do informal research -- talk to people at concerts, in record stores, hot night clubs -- and find it just as valuable.''
Their research tells them that global youth culture is not one-size-fits-all: Brazil demands hard rock, Scotland leans toward ballads and upbeat pop. Japan wants Japanese music, but also [US] celebrity news, entertainment, and fashion.
Mr. Hunter admits that not every culture is going to feel comfortable with MTV's strobe-like barrage of writhing bodies and teens with attitude.
''The time and research that goes in helps us to understand and create [programs] sensitive to local standards on TV,'' he says. ''Some people are worried. We can't make everyone happy.''
Does MTV provide a wedge that breaks down ancient cultures? ''I don't know if I can answer that concern,'' Hunter says. ''I don't want to suggest [MTV has] no serious content, but there's more resistance to CNN. People want us wherever we go.''
He grins, and borrows from a '70s rock song. ''It's only rock 'n' roll, and we like it.''
But Sut Jhalloy, professor of communications at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an expert on MTV, is concerned over the long-range impact of MTV and other global mass media on traditional cultures.
''I don't think it's bad by itself, a culture changing -- many are very repressive toward women -- but where does the change come from and who's in control?
''My perspective is that it's always dangerous when a culture gives up control of its cultural space to outside influences, because you cannot control them, whether they be good or bad, regardless of their intention. I worry about a global culture that is becoming driven by a few giant corporations who don't care about culture, who only care about selling.''
Beavis & Butt-head Big Hit in Brazil
ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Fabian Alvarez, riding his mountain bike on a trail near the Corcovado (Christ statue) in Rio de Janeiro, proclaims he's an MTV buff. ''I love the video clips. But me and my friends especially like to imitate Beavis & Butt-head,'' (MTV's foul-mouthed antihero cartoon duo), he says.
''Brazil's youths want to be connected to the outside world,'' says Andre Vaisman, MTV Brasil program director. ''There's a huge hunger.''
In a nation where more families own television sets than refrigerators, MTV Brasil has found a comfy niche. Since debuting in 1990, its mix of American and Brazilian music, news spots, specials, and Beavis & Butt-head, has attracted some 9 million households in the nation's 13 largest cities, according to MTV statistics.
Fabian fits almost perfectly the profile of a typical MTV viewer. In a recent survey by the polling firm DataFolha, 27 percent are between 12 and 17, 62 percent are males, 68 percent are students, and 86 percent are from the upper and middle classes.
During its 18-hour daily programming, anything goes on MTV Brasil: Madonna raunch, heavy metal, foul language, and nudity. In fact, MTV is Brazil's only channel with a year-round AIDS campaign to promote condom use.
Yet all that merely reflects Brazil's permissive society. Brazilian TV is cheerfully obsessed by sex. During the annual Carnaval, cameras routinely zoom in on seminude bodies gyrating to pulsating samba beats. And nudity on television is not uncommon.
According to viewer response, MTV offends few local mores. What works less well, however, are American cultural situations that are not shared locally.
For example, viewers reacted negatively to a recent profile of an American teenager who lives in his own apartment, a rare occurrence in family-oriented Brazil.
And discussions on political correctness on ''Sex in the '90s,'' or the latest update on the legal problems of rap star Tupac Shakur are also considered real snoozers here.
Instead, MTV Brasil's popularity is heavily based on its emphasis on local musicians. Many clips include the nation's biggest singing stars such as samba kings Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Jorge Bem Jor, and Chico Buarque, as well as such popular rock bands as Barao Vermelho (Red Baron) and Pantera (Panther).
As a result, few experts here fear that American music channels like MTV will send dances like the samba and the bossa nova, or local rock, into cultural oblivion.
''If [hard-rockers] Guns 'N Roses gave a concert here tomorrow, there would be a huge crowd,'' notes Mr. Vaisman. ''But there would be more Brazilians elsewhere dancing the samba.''
But Vaisman doesn't deny his station's influence on Brazilian culture. After grunge music was introduced on MTV in 1992, flannel shirts suddenly became fashionable, an unusual fad in a tropical country where winter temperatures routinely reach the 80s.
And just last year, after airing a video clip of a little-known rock group called The Raimundos -- who mix hard rock with a local beat called Baiao -- the band sold a phenomenal 100,000 copies in four months.
But more important, MTV Brasil is hoping soon to expand its operation to 24 hours a day and to the nation's most remote areas, including the Amazon jungle.
In the meantime this month the station is adding a second channel, ''MTV Latino,'' which will connect Portuguese Brazil to the salsa-and-merengue Spanish-language world of singers like Juan Luis Guerra and Gloria Estefan.
-- Jack Epstein, Rio de Janeiro
Europe: Clones of MTV Compete for Viewers
THE edits are tight, the graphics sizzle, but the sweat-suited rappers are rhyming in French. So are the VJs (video jockeys) and even the US-import Chippendale ''models,'' who take a stab at the language of Voltaire and Racine, but don't quite hit the accent. It's not MTV, but if you turn down the sound, it's close.
Welcome to the culture clones. While high-culture types are apoplectic about the inroads that are made by MTV, game shows, and soap operas, masters of industry all over Europe are adapting national variations of those models on their own commercial networks.
''MTV [Europe] is a planetary, Anglo-American station; we're more European,'' says Francois Thiellet, general director of MCM-Euromusique, a French music-video channel that has set its sights on nabbing some of MTV's 142 million households in Europe. They're not there yet. But so far, MCM claims to have edged out its planetary rival in Oslo and in half of the Belgian network, and now reaches 6 million homes.
Along with MCM, Video-Music in Italy, and Viva in Germany are challenging the MTV Europe video network for the attention and purchasing power of Europe's 16-to-34-year-olds. According to MTV statistics, 42.5 million Europeans tune in every month and 7.1 million every day.
''Seventy percent of our programming is European. People respond to that,'' says MCM's Mr. Thiellet. ''We're trying to have programming with wider appeal than MTV -- French songs, more jazz, blues, ethnic music.''
''We're also Latin,'' he adds. ''We have more warmth. If I see a clip with two naked women, and it's good, I'd use it. MTV has a more Anglo [culture]; they wouldn't.''
MTV Europe officials say such national offensives are costing them no sleep.
''There's plenty of room for a pan-European audience, along with national channels,'' says spokeswoman Sandra Keenan. ''People in France have more in common with other 16-to-34-year-olds in Europe than they have with their own parents. But broadcasting in the French language is good, it offers more choice.''
Nonetheless, MTV Europe is moving quickly to develop its own focused national offerings. ''
We aim to reflect the styles and lifestyles of our viewers so they get a sense of belonging, a sense that they're part of the MTV feeling, part of the club,'' says Ms. Keenan.
''Our research shows that people want us to transmit in the English language. Our 18 VJs are all different nationalities, but they all speak Euro-English, a simplified version of English that all can understand.''
-- Gail Russell Chaddock, Paris
Asia: Trying to Limit, Capitalize on MTV
TRY as they might, Singapore and China can't escape the ''insidious'' influence of MTV.
The music-video network symbolizes all that is Western, decadent, and culturally subversive to officials in two of Asia's most authoritarian and strait-laced societies. So, both the Chinese and Singapore governments officially limit or deny access to MTV and other cable channels by banning individuals from owning satellite dishes.
Asian officials worry about ''the presence of generic MTV-generation kids in almost every Asian capital [that] bear testimony to the impact of the satellite broadcasts,'' said a commentary in the Straits Times daily in Singapore, which reflects the government viewpoint.
''For Asian governments, there is the nagging issue of 'Western trash' polluting Asian cultural and moral values,'' the newspaper said. ''No doubt the concern with cultural imperialism may be exaggerated to some extent by Asian governments, but it is by no means unreal.''
In China, which insists on controlling reception of foreign broadcasts and frowned on MTV's racy appeal, the network disappeared from TV sets last year after splitting with its carrier, the pan-Asian Star TV network. The two companies were at odds over who controls the MTV brand in Asia.
At the same time, Chinese distaste for news coverage by the British Broadcasting Corporation forced Star TV to remove the BBC from its service to North Asia.
In MTV's place, Hong Kong-based Star TV launched Channel V, a tamer offshoot of the music network with more Chinese-language videos than Western. The MTV VJs who host the channel and have become celebrities across Asia, are still featured on Star TV, the holder of their contracts.
MTV, which lost access of up to 40 million Asian homes when it broke with Star TV, is preparing this spring to launch two 24-hour channels (in Mandarin and English) across Asia under its own control and with its own satellite access. The initiative was sidetracked in January when a Chinese rocket carrying the American-made Apstar-2 satellite blew up after liftoff.
''Channel V is OK to watch if there's nothing else,'' says Xu Lin, a Chinese high school student who can watch the music videos at the home of a foreign friend. ''But MTV is better; more funky.''
Still, despite constraints, MTV has become a metaphor for the pop culture of Asian youth and an example of the consumer clout of satellite television. In China, former MTV VJs tout everything from their own clothing lines to running shoes and athletic wear.
Although the government moved to restrict satellite dish sales last year, a number of Chinese can still see foreign cable channels. Many large companies can obtain satellite dishes and provide foreign programming to their employees, while many satellite stations that were in place before the ban can operate unencumbered.
MTV culture is also reflected in the tide of new discotheques in Beijing, and at last is giving the dreary Chinese capital a nightlife. At J.J.'s, one of about a half-dozen sprawling, multitiered discos in Beijing, up to 1,500 affluent young Chinese rock nightly to throbbing music, flashing neon lights, and the repartee of a British disc jockey.
''I try to come about three times a week,'' says Wu, an 18-year-old with heavy makeup, tight jeans, and embroidered jean jacket, who says she can afford the $6 admission. ''It's just like MTV.''
MTV is negotiating to establish its largest independent Asian production center in Singapore, which doesn't allow rank-and-file Singaporeans to buy satellite dishes. But large companies and government departments are allowed dishes and access to Channel V and other Star TV programming. At the government-tethered Straits Times newspaper, reporters say Star TV's music-video channel blares throughout the day. ''My boss watches it all day long,'' complains a reporter. ''And this is a senior editor.''
-- Sheila Tefft, Beijing