By the late 1980s, MTV’s programmers weren’t content with scattershot ratings, so they experimented with original series and specialty programming blocks. Today, MTV’s harshest critics blast Jersey Shore and The Hills as having nothing to do with rock and roll, but each one of these groundbreaking series dealt with similar complaints:
#10: The State
In the early 1990s, MTV experimented mixed music videos with short comedy segments starring Ben Stiller and Alex Winter. With the premiere of The State, MTV flipped the formula to emphasize comedy, even though popular music pervaded the entire show. The NYU-based group managed to put Sid and Nancy on Pyramid, stage an Eastern Bloc variety show (that got its own spinoff), and chronicle a porcupine race.
#9: House of Style
Before fashion correspondents covered the runways on E!, MTV News spun its own style features into a newsmagazine that followed supermodels and designers around the world. Cindy Crawford hosted the original series for six years, presenting segments that analyzed how the fashion industry impacted social awareness as well as style consciousness. The series drew controversy for its examination of eating disorders in the modeling business.
#8: Total Request Live
When viewers complained that MTV had stopped playing music videos, programmers launched two series: Carson Daly’s countdown Total Request and the manic talk show MTV Live. Welding both shows together at MTV’s new Times Square studios in 1998 launched a decade of pop culture influence for TRL. The show’s popularity coincided with a boom in boy bands and teen queens, with TRL becoming world headquarters for fans of Christina, Britney, and Justin.
In 1999, struggling actor Johnny Knoxville recorded a series of bizarre stunts for a feature article in a skateboarding magazine. In the pre-YouTube era, Knoxville’s crazy videotapes circulated across the country until MTV offered the Jackass crew a permanent home—and access to professional first aid technicians. The show has spawned its own circle of celebrities, including Steve-O and Bam Margera, and a third Jackass feature film is in the works.
#6: MTV Unplugged
Originally showing up on the schedule in late 1989, MTV Unplugged offered a mellow escape into New York’s folk scene, with acoustic performances by some of the channel’s most popular stars. Paul McCartney’s release of his episode’s set as a live album turned Unplugged into an essential tour stop during the 1990s. Nirvana’s 1993 Unplugged episode became one of Kurt Cobain’s final television appearances.
#5: Remote Control
Ken Ober helmed MTV’s daily celebration of television’s loudest genre: the game show. Contestants didn’t always realize that a wrong answer could get them literally ejected from a recliner through a hole in “Kenny’s” basement wall. Players lucky enough to win the trivia competition found themselves strapped to a Craftmatic bed or to the “Wheel of Jeopardy” for the bonus round. Loony theme rounds featured up-and-coming comedians, including Denis Leary, Colin Quinn, and Adam Sandler.
#4: Liquid Television
MTV sucker-punched casual, late-night viewers by melting popular music videos into Liquid Television’s opening credits. A few seconds of “Love Shack” morphed into the first appearances of Aeon Flux, The Head, and Dog-Boy. Mike Judge not only debuted Beavis & Butthead on the series, he also screened the animated short that would evolve into Office Space.
#3: 120 Minutes
In 1986, just about the only place American audiences could catch a glimpse of R.E.M., The Smiths, or The Cure was on late Sunday night, when MTV programmed two hours of alternative music videos. By the time legendary host Dave Kendall arrived in 1989, alternative had practically taken over college radio. And with the world premiere of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” 120 Minutes helped modern rock conquer mainstream audiences.
#2: The Real World
MTV’s reality shows, especially standouts like The Osbournes and Jersey Shore, owe everything to The Real World. Starting with the New York season in 1992, the series broke documentary boundaries while introducing now-common devices like “The Confessional.” Third season cast member Pedro Zamora captured America’s attention by sharing both his same-sex marriage and his struggle with AIDS.
#1: Yo! MTV Raps
In August 1988, MTV brought the culture of freestyles and mixtapes to Middle America with the premiere of Yo! MTV Raps. Hosts Fab 5 Freddy, Doctor Dré, and Ed Lover captured classic interviews and performances while chronicling the sound and the style of hip hop. The groundbreaking show even engineered its own demise: the rap music it championed became so dominant in the mainstream, there was little reason to keep it as a standalone programming block.