I want my MTV!

One small statement for man, one thunderous rallying cry for a new generation of rock music fans.When the MTV channel switched on at midnight Aug. 1, 1981, it brought America its first taste of 24-hour, nonstop music television. It had few advertisers, but a loyal audience of teenagers and college students who could relate to the quick, offbeat pace and the hypnotizing music videos.

Now, seven years and nearly 45 million subscribers after the first music video pierced the din of early morning television, MTV is a cultural force, an international music network with outposts on five continents and one of the most recognizable trademarks on the globe.

It helped make Madonna a superstar, and despite an early reluctance to air black videos, MTV catapulted Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston into pop's highest orbit. The rec-ord industry, dazed by a 1970s sales depression, is now awash in revival as MTV addicts rush to record stores to bring home the music of their favorite stars.

"When there were 10 of us sitting around at the beginning, tossing ideas back and forth about what we wanted, I don't think any of us imagined what MTV would eventually become," said Tom Freston, chairman of MTV Networks. "We knew it would be successful, but we underestimated the rate at which it would happen.

"I guess the question is: Have we become decadent pigs here at MTV?"

Well?

"We don't think so."

But just as its booming success was tied to the tastes of American youth, it also led to problems. You see, the audience was changing; MTV wasn't.

"We had to face the fact that people were tuning us in and out as fast as their remote controls would carry them," Freston said.

"That turned into stagnant ratings. When we started, not many people had remotes. Now that number is almost 90 percent. We had to find a way to keep people around longer than four minutes."

That has meant changing the MTV visage from fast-cut to full-length programming; TV shows instead of tidbits. MTV began searching for alternatives to the all-music format in early 1987.

The result is a split schedule that shifts between 12 hours of music and 12 hours of new network-style programs. There's a game show, "Remote Control," a dance program, "Club MTV," and a talk show, "Mouth to Mouth," among the new incarnations.

Hey, this sounds like regular TV.

"We're not Hollywood, we're anti-Hollywood," Freston said. "We may have some of the elements of `regular' TV, but we have our own style."

No doubt. One look at MTV's "Remote Control," a parody of the recent wash of nerd-brain TV game shows, and viewers will understand what Freston means.

For 30 minutes every day, three college-student contestants make the trip to show-host Ken Ober's "basement" for a chance to answer a slew of mostly mindless trivia questions. Only one thing matters: It's Ken's basement, so he makes the rules - sometimes as he goes along.

Ober's bratty quizmaster style has earned him a cult following on college campuses across the country since the show first aired last year. It also has won him the highest ratings of any MTV program (videos included).

"This is the stuff they grew up with," Ober, 31, said of the show's questions, which range from Flinstones trivia to a top-10 list of popular dairy products. "Nobody can answer the questions on `Jeopardy' except the people on the show, so what's the fun?"

"Remote Control" contestants sit on overstuffed chairs while selecting categories with giant remote-control units. Losers are thrown backward, through the set, into oblivion. Winners must identify nine music videos in 30 seconds to collect "valuable prizes."

Freston often refers to the show as an example of how MTV combines rock and roll philosophy with standard formulas to create fresh programming.

"MTV style has been the key to the network's success and won't change because of the new programming," he said.

What is MTV style?

Trendy.

If it's hot or new, cute and fresh, it's on MTV and probably will be in the stores soon. Over the years, that has meant the Cyndi-Lauper-pulled-from-the-hamper look, Madonna Wanna-bes, hair mousse, technicolor plastic watches, Jams (baggy shorts) and fat skateboards.

"Of any station out there, MTV Networks leads the way as a trend-setter," said Jim Boyle, advertising executive for the National Cable TV Association. "They start commercial brush fires that turn into blazes. Advertisers know kids watch MTV to see what's `in.' "

It has transformed the network into a cultural beacon that sets trends more often than following them. That's scary for some cultural purists. But for advertisers, who clamor for air time, and for network coffers, it has been pure gold.

It was MTV's commercial success, combined with the penetrating notoriety the music channel gained during the early '80s, that spawned a host of new projects destined for a larger market: the world.

How do you say "I want my MTV" in Japanese?

Tune in MTV Japan to find out. It's an hour program aired in the wee hours of the morning on one of Japan's largest networks, right after Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News. There's also MTV Europe (with offices in London, Munich, Amsterdam, Brussels and Zurich), MTV Australia and MTV Internacional, a syndicated show distributed in Mexico and South America.

"Everyone in the States thinks of themselves as members of a global network," said Lee Masters, who oversees the operation of MTV and its Baby Boom equivalent, VH-1. "Music is an international art form, so the look and style of MTV translates better than any language."

Freston agrees but dismisses any suggestion that the network is engaged in musical colonialism.

"We have gone to great lengths to show that these are individual MTVs which are connected to the big MTV in the sky. We don't want to seem like an empire.

"That carries over to the rest of the network, too," he adds.

Ah, the rest of the network.

Though MTV began as a pet project of Warner/Amex Communications, it has changed hands several times and is now part of Viacom International Inc., a media company once known only for its stable of syndicated television shows.

Teamed with its other cable interests, Nickelodeon and the newly created VH-1, MTV is now the flagship of MTV Networks, which aims to capture a segment of every age group that gapes at the tube.

Empire? No, not an empire, they say. But certainly one of the fastest-growing media companies around.

Nickelodeon, aimed at 2- to 15-year-olds, was born on April Fools' Day in 1979. As a precursor to MTV, it ran for 13 hours a day, signing off about the time the kiddies went to bed. With the addition of Nick at Nite for young adults in 1985, Nickelodeon is now a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week enterprise.

In the ratings, Nickelodeon outdistances its after-school and Saturday-morning rivals. But what about those too old for Nickelodeon? Too old, even, for the crashing bands on MTV but not too old to enjoy pop music?

Meet VH-1.

Video Hits 1 is the answer to the easy-listening dreams of America's (dare we say it?) yuppie clientele. It's not Muzak, and it's not Bon Jovi, but it falls within earshot of the growing number of what are considered to be middle-aged consumers, age 25 to 49.

"We had a segment of the market that was growing out of MTV but didn't want to give up the music," Masters said. "The result is a channel that caters to their taste and deals with the experiences of people who grew up in the late '50s and '60s."

The musical fare ranges from Anita Baker to James Taylor, with programs dedicated to jazz, oldies, comedy, ballads and love songs.

"Like MTV, the VH-1 audience is now asking for more than videos, but they also demand more than a wacky game show to keep their attention," Masters said. "So our programmers went to work designing an upscale, yet offbeat, mix of shows."

"Watch Bobby Rivers" is VH-1's talk-show alternative. Featuring former veejay Bobby Rivers, the show treads on the outer limits of reality.

"I got a letter from a guy who said I'm like the guy next door - in a Hitchcock movie," Rivers said.

"We're not trying to project something that is too high-brow. Then again, this isn't the Bullwinkle show either."

Rivers reaches out to baby boomers and their interests with, among other things, strange guest combinations, such as Mel Gibson and "I Dream of Jeanie" creator Sidney Sheldon.

"This is a generational service," Masters said of the newest of the MTV networks (it came on the air Jan. 1, 1985). "It's more sophisticated and geared to a different audience. So, there are programming changes that will work. Some won't. We're still learning."