Walk through Times Square on any weekday afternoon, and you're bound to see excited teenagers looking longingly upward.
The object of their adoration is a studio high above the hubbub where VJ Carson Daly hosts one of MTV's most popular programs, "Total Request Live." Fans gather outside, hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite musicians and movie stars - or better yet, to be on "TRL," which pulls its audience from the crowd and uses those left behind for street segments.
"I'd do anything to be on this show," says Megan Daniels, a 16-year-old from Lake Arrowhead, Calif., waiting behind a barricade on a recent afternoon. "I love MTV."
MTV debuted 20 years ago at a time when few households had cable TV and Madonna was the name of a religious figure, not a pop star. As it enters its third decade, the network, one of many now owned by media giant Viacom, is seen worldwide and is credited with sparking the cable revolution in the United States - and with making music as much about image as sound.
Nonstop entertainment is what MTV served up back in the '80s, influencing the look and speed of television, from the music-soaked images of the cop drama "Miami Vice" to the way news is delivered.
"The impact has been huge and it's global," says Todd Gitlin, author of the forthcoming book "Media Unlimited: The Torrent of Images and Sounds in Modern Life." "The whole culture is on speed," he says, noting that while MTV alone isn't responsible for that outcome, "it'd be foolish to say there's no connection. MTV both capitalized on attention span, and shrank it further."
Once an outlet primarily for music videos, MTV has evolved into a lifestyle channel - offering everything from the World Wrestling Federation to soap operas like "Undressed" and reality-TV pioneer "The Real World." Through its programming, it promotes movies and fashion, safe sex and voting.
It still captures the imagination of the teen population -as Megan and others who gather in Times Square will attest - but has to work harder for their attention than it did when it first debuted on Aug. 1, 1981. Today, media catering to the young include dozens of outlets, including magazines, websites, and other teen-oriented networks like the WB, home of "Dawson's Creek."
To be heard over the din, MTV turns over programs quickly, looking for the Next Big Thing, and has embraced the technology its viewers use, offering interactive shows (like "TRL") that incorporate the Internet.
It has branched into theatrical movies ("Election," "Save the Last Dance") and, ironically, a channel exclusively devoted to videos called MTV2, which relaunched in January and reaches more than 30 million homes (less than half of the 78 million that receive MTV). MTV2 is a nod to the channel's roots, something critics and viewers have chided it for losing sight of in recent years, with fictional programming and reality series making music videos hard to come by.
The network's approach to social issues has also drawn attention - rallying against hate crimes one minute, featuring the music of artists who have been convicted of crimes or write violent lyrics the next. Van Toffler, president of MTV: Music Television and MTV2, says MTV can't be didactic without also providing uncensored entertainment - if it wants a loyal following. "People need to know that the audience has this schizophrenia in the way they live their lives - they volunteer to make the world a better place, to stop the violence, yet they also want to go out and buy a Snoop [rap] record," he says.
Those who track teen trends say MTV is at once both innovative and weighed down by its corporate ownership. It's less cutting edge than it once was when it comes to introducing new bands outside of well-established genres like the bubblegum pop of Britney Spears or misogynistic rap of Eminem. And while it's taken on edgy shows like the outrageous "Jackass" -in which hosts perform stunts like lighting themselves on fire - it has moved more cautiously on other projects.
"In its more adventurous days, MTV would have been the one to put [the cartoon] 'South Park' on the air, but they passed on it," says Sharon Lee, co-founder of Look-Look.com, a company that studies youth culture.
"It's definitely a more corporate personality these days" - which is where success tends to lead, she adds.
Nobody knew what MTV would grow into early on, when it wasn't even available in New York. "We were in no major markets -we were in Des Moines and Tulsa," says Les Garland, a veteran in the music industry and one of MTV's early pioneers.
MTV might still be relegated to the backwash of cable if it weren't for an advertising brainstorm that brought it into millions of homes. Mr. Garland calls the "I want my MTV" ad campaign of 1983 "the best-spent million dollars in history." MTV persuaded major recording artists to say "I want my MTV" in TV ads, encouraging people to ask their cable operators for MTV. Garland remembers paying Mick Jagger a dollar to do one of the spots.
After that, MTV's recognizability went through the roof, and people were signing up for cable in the millions. "MTV doesn't get nearly the credit that should go to it, for good or bad, for igniting the cable revolution," says Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
The first video that aired on the network was "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the British group The Buggles. And at first, MTV did blindside those in radio by speeding up the process of introducing '80s icons like Duran Duran and INXS in the US before radio could.
"Going back to the early days, they [MTV] had a powerful impact," says Lee Abrams, who was an early consultant to the network and is now chief programmer for XM Satellite Radio. "It caught a lot of radio stations in America by surprise because all the sudden here was this thing called MTV that was very hip and very current becoming a major factor in what was making hit records."
Music videos were around before MTV, especially in Europe, but the new network brought them to a much wider audience. It popularized the look of artists as much as their sound -making stars out of "big hair" heavy metal bands and Madonna, whose musical ability was almost secondary to her ability to reinvent herself.
It took longer for African-American artists to get airtime on the network. Michael Jackson led the way with innovative videos like the mini-movie for his 1983 hit "Thriller."
MTV is still a boon for record sales, but Mr. Abrams and others say that it has not overtaken radio. "No question, MTV and [sister network] VH1 are very powerful," says Mr. Abrams. "But radio is still king."
Teens say they use radio in conjunction with MTV, magazines, and word-of-mouth to make buying decisions. But the big trend among teens is multitasking -talking on the phone, watching TV, and using the Internet all at the same time, says MTV's Mr. Toffler. The channel tries to hook into that by allowing teens to choose the videos they'll see on some programs on MTV and MTV2.
Overseas, the network (now in 140 countries) is finding ways to use cell phones to draw in its core audience - many of whom don't realize that the local MTV channel they are watching is not something thought up in their own country, but part of an American brand.
It's all part of MTV's knack for knowing its audience, which not only gives the cable network commercial clout, but has also boosted its ratings, which were sagging in the late 1990s.
Today, MTV looks more like a traditional network, with "appointment" shows and a prime-time schedule, than the niche music channel it was when it started. Its executives balk at the comparison, arguing that along with being more risky than other channels, it doesn't follow the typical calendar but debuts shows all the time (the new season of "The Real World" started this month, for example). And music, they say, underscores everything MTV does - even if videos are harder to find.
"It's about presenting music and music videos in different ways," says Mr. Toffler, referring to shows like "Making the Video," "Cribs" (about musicians' homes), and "Becoming," where fans can star in their own version of a favorite music video.
"When we put something on MTV, it burns bright, and it burns fast," he adds. "Our audience expects us to evolve almost hourly. If we were to stay still and be the same way we were in 1981, we'd be dead."
Loyalty is not a problem among the fans who show up in Times Square each day, hoping to be part of a cultural phenomenon. For Megan from California, it's about a network that's for her age group, one that's "in tune with what people want to hear."
MTV's major moments 1981
Aug. 1 MTV launches at 12:01 a.m. The first hour features videos by the Buggles, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, and The Who.
Dec. 2 Michael Jackson's 14-minute "Thriller" film debuts.
July 13 MTV presents 17 hours of "Live Aid." The concert emanates from two stadiums on two continents with all proceeds going toward African famine relief. Performers include Sting, Led Zeppelin, The Who, and U2.
Aug. 6 MTV premieres "YO! MTV Raps," a weekly rap music show.
March 3 MTV world premieres Madonna's controversial "Like A Prayer" video.
June 2 MTV makes a major commitment to the coverage of fashion - "House Of Style," a quarterly series on fashion and trends.
Jan. 21 MTV launches season premiere of "MTV Unplugged," an acoustic music series.
Oct. 5 MTV joins "Rock The Vote" campaign to encourage voter registration with a series of on-air public service announcements.
Feb. 3 MTV News kicks off extensive coverage of the 1992 presidential election during the New Hampshire primaries. MTV's "Choose Or Lose" election '92 coverage is a nonpartisan effort to engage young people in politics.
May 21 Premiere of "The Real World," a reality-based soap opera. The 13-part series follows three months in the lives of seven young adults living in New York.
June 10 MTV premieres the first annual "MTV Movie Awards." Hosted by comedian Dennis Miller. Unlike other shows, it includes unconventional categories, including "Best Villain, and "Best Kiss."
March 8 "Beavis and Butt-Head," an original animated series, stars two suburban misfits.
May 3 MTV launches MTV Productions to produce projects for theatrical release. The first film is "Beavis and Butt-Head Do America" in 1996. Others include "Election" (1999) and "Save the Last Dance" (2001).
July 19 MTV premieres "Road Rules," a spinoff of "The Real World."
Aug. 1 MTV Launches a sister channel, M2: Music Television, a 24-hour music format targeting 12- to 34-year-olds. Now called MTV2, it reaches more than 30 million homes.
Sept. 3 MTV announces its new studios in Times Square, New York.
May 14 MTV debuts a new weekly clay animated series, "Celebrity Deathmatch." Each episode features clay-figure renderings of celebrities pitted against each other in a wrestling ring.
Sept. 14 MTV premieres "Total Request Live," hosted by Carson Daly. "TRL" is programmed using viewers requests.
June 28 MTV premieres "Making the Video," which takes a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into making a music video.
Sept. 29 MTV premieres "Jackass," a weekly comedy show that features silly pransks and ridiculous stunts.
Oct. 5 The debut of "Cribs," a series that features music and sports stars showing off their palatial homes.
July 10 MTV debuts "Becoming," in which fans are given the chance to star in their own version of a favorite music video.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor