A lot is being written about Michael Jackson and will be for days to come, no doubt. Much of it will be deserved praise, much will be analysis of his often strange and sometimes too-public life. But as soon as the news broke, radio stations across the country began playing his music in tribute, and MTV somewhat reverted to its original format, breaking up its programming day to put his videos back in rotation.
I’ve never been a big fan of Jackson’s music, but I would be among the first to agree with what the media has been saying over and over again, because it’s absolutely true — Michael Jackson’s impact on music was and will remain incalculable. It’s only marginally easier to measure the effect he had on television. Without question, Jackson was the critical-mass moment for the young music network, with attention-grabbing videos full of wild choreography, bold characterizations and — let’s face it, MTV — non-white people.
As much as MTV was responsible for his rise, he was nearly as responsible for making the then-video-based network more than just a household word, but a cultural phenomenon. In time, MTV would evolve away from music and into arguably more of a youth-lifestyle brand with programming to match, but it’s difficult to see how anybody who’s been aware of the network since its beginnings could fail to see just how instrumental Jackson’s presence was to illustrating to the world the potential of this pliant medium, the music video, and how powerful an effect it could have on generations of viewers. The fact that, more than 25 years after his star burned its brightest, people around the world are reacting so strongly to the news of Jackson’s demise shows in part just how strong his impact on television was.