An ocean’s worth of ink spillage by entertainment reporters is likely to greet the celebration of MTV’s 30th birthday today. The channel broke new ground by introducing an entire generation to music videos, helping to catapult musicians like Duran Duran, Madonna and Michael Jackson into the pantheon of super-stardom.

Many of the channel’s watchers are old enough to recall the network’s once ubiquitous catchphrase “I want my MTV”, and recite names like Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood and Julie Brown from memory. It conjures up summers and weekends filled with videos that became a virtual soundtrack to our restless youth.

That is what makes the quality of the debate over MTV so striking. In pondering the network’s relevance after 30 years, one can’t help but notice how suffused the discussion becomes with nostalgia — what the network used to represent, coupled with a lament for how far it’s strayed from what made it popular in the first place. My own unscientific Facebook survey about MTV’s impact after three decades prompted comments that can be summarized this way: it’s not what it used to be.

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A simple Google search regales you with keywords about MTV’s relentlessly controversial reality programming, or the video awards that have become a cultural touchstone. On the day it marks a big figure birthday, the channel that did more than any single media outlet to pioneer the video age now faces something of an identity crisis.

MTV made music visual in a way that emphasized looks and style over talent and substance. In the process, they reshaped how music was perceived and helped create entire careers from whole cloth (Debbie Gibson, anyone?) Now, it seems as if the ‘M’ in its moniker may as well be replaced with an ‘R’ that better represents its endless stream of reality shows.

In ways both large and small, MTV is still an entertainment juggernaut that influences the music industry and our celebrity-obsessed culture. The network’s early marketing emphasis on rock and pop, most popular amongst affluent middle class white suburban dwellers, led to (unsubstantiated) whispers that programming executives had an unspoken embargo against black artists. This is an odd charge, considering the fact that one of its early on-air personalities was J.J. Jackson, a black man.

Years later, accusations of a ‘blackout’ seems specious at best. MTV ultimately played a large role in promoting rap acts in the Halcyon days of hip-hop, with shows like Yo! MTV Raps, Pimp My Ride becoming de rigeur for up and coming artists. The network’s debut of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video is now viewed as a seminal pop culture moment, and went a considerable ways toward dispelling any lingering animosity about MTV’s commitment to black artists.
Early race-tinged criticism of MTV now seems hopelessly outdated. Sister network BET’s 106 and Park, currently the music industry’s standard for rap talk shows, is a pallid facsimile of Yo! MTV Raps in its heyday. It’s hard to recall the days that BET and MTV were once rivals, although in a peculiar way they actually complemented each other.

The nation’s premier black entertainment network ruled the roost on weeknights with Video Soul; meanwhile, MTV owned weekdays and weekends with hip-hop, rock and dance programming. To its own credit and eventual success, BET mimicked MTV’s wildly popular music countdown format. Interestingly, both channels now frequently end up in the crosshairs of critics for promoting crass materialism and unrestrained sexuality.

Nowadays, MTV has become synonymous with reality television, and with good reason: the network blessed (or cursed, depending on whom you ask) society with the reality genre in the first place. The runaway success of The Real World adumbrated the cultural voyeurism that made for near-irresistible television. As many people that deplore the histrionics of Snooki and her cohorts on the execrable Jersey Shore, the societal import of these shows are huge and immensely profitable. As a society, we cringe at the sight of a train wreck, yet in doing so we feed a morbid sense of curiosity. We have MTV to thank — or blame — for that.

A generational fissure clearly characterizes the state of discussions surrounding MTV’s current state. For youngsters weaned on reality television and Hollywood happenings, MTV is still a barometer of all that is hip and cool. But for critics of a certain age who remember with fondness how the network first planted its flag on the cultural consciousness (and who now have children of their own), the channel is responsible for the spewing of irresponsible and amoral detritus.

An indelible image from my teenage years is my deeply religious grandmother pitching a proverbial fit anytime she found the television tuned into MTV. For sure, the kids in our household — myself included — loved the network. However, with the benefit of hindsight and maturity, I now suspect Grandma was on to something.

With its steady but unmistakable drift away from music and toward trash and hyper-sexuality, MTV’s three-decade cultural dominance is in desperate need of an image makeover. At this juncture in its history, the network’s long-term relevance appears to hinge less on whether we still want our MTV, and more on whether it even exists anymore.