MTV turns 30 Monday. But perhaps the more significant milestone comes three days later, with the start of Season 4 of "Jersey Shore."
There probably are plenty of viewers in the younger of end of MTV's target 12 to 34 audience who don't know the "M" stands for "Music." It might as well stand for "Morphing."
The one-time hub for all things music video has changed greatly over the years – and not always for the better. MTV has grown older, but it hasn't grown up.
There's danger that those of us ancient enough to remember the excitement of MTV's debut in 1981 as a 24/7 stage not only for the then-exploding music video form, but as a platform for youth culture, might come across as cranky, rigid nostalgists.
Change can be good. But MTV has transformed from an entertaining display of the power and promise of youth to, at its worst, an absurd theater of cynicism and exploitation.
The symbol of the network has gone from the man on the moon, an image that spoke to exploring new frontiers, to Snooki on the shore, which speaks to an air-headed slog through a dead-end life.
Some of this began a little over a decade into MTV's reign with the 1992 debut of "The Real World," an initially fascinating, voyeuristic look at diverse personalities thrown together into a home. But the message it sent to some is that instant celebrity can be attained through acting outrageously – an ethos that's propelled the worst of the Reality TV phenomenon.
Perhaps the most disturbing element of "Jersey Shore" is that the show, unlike the mixed collection of characters we find on “The Real World” and other reality programs, is based on a shared insularity. Which seems the opposite of MTV’s original mission.
There's no doubt that MTV's changing direction is lucrative: the network earlier this year logged its best ratings since 2006, a climb that shows no sign of abating.
Still, there’s apparently a big demand for new music videos, as evidenced by the hundreds of millions of hits for Lady Gaga, Justin Bieber and others on YouTube. There's a fresh DIY spirit online that allows for the emergence of new talent – even if we get the occasional Rebecca Black.
That sense of youthful possibility is largely MIA on MTV, which has lost much of its balance. On the good side, “Skins” is gone, and we still have the “Video Music Awards” and the online-friendly “Rock the Vote” movement. The network, for better or worse, remains an influential U.S. export. But the youth-driven, social media-fueled pushes for political change we've seen abroad in recent months may be less inspired by MTV than by images and information delivered through YouTube and Facebook.
MTV's latest international foray comes Thursday when Snooki and the gang bring their sorry stereotype act to Italy. Their visit, much like MTV’s 30-year journey, promises to be a strange trip. The “Jersey” crew will eventually fade away, hopefully not too long into the start of MTV’s fourth decade. But only time will tell where the network heads in the years to come – and whether we’ll still want our MTV.
Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.