Exclusive: Michael Jackson Was the Key to Establishing MTV as the Success It Became, Former CEO Freston Says

Jun 26, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Michael Jackson practically single-handedly was responsible for the success of one of the biggest phenomena in TV history: MTV.

In November, 1982, a little more than a year after MTV debuted, Jackson released the album “Thriller,” which would go on to become the best-selling album of all time, with sales of over 100 million.

At the time, relatively few videos from black artists were on MTV. When Jackson released a video of “Billie Jean” to promote “Thriller,” MTV picked it up. The “Billie Jean” video, and the others released to promote the album, were the “supercharger to MTV’s breakthrough success back in the ‘80s,” Tom Freston told TVWeek early this morning in an email from Europe, where he is travelling.

Freston, MTV’s former CEO, is a long-time pop music lover and has known many of the top music artists of the 1980s and 1990s. He said of Jackson, “He was the giant of his age, a genuine phenomena, not some engineered pop star. He crowned himself The King of Pop,’ and, while he has certainly had his ups and downs, no one can deny his genius. RIP, Michael.”

Indeed, back in the early ‘80s, when the ad slogan “I Want My MTV” became part of the culture, it could have been a substitute for “I Want My Michael Jackson.” Jackson’s success on MTV also encouraged the network to show more videos from other black artists.

Not only was TV such a key element in Jackson’s music success, his TV interviews with such mega TV stars as Oprah Winfrey, Barbara Walters and Diane Sawyer focused a camera on his personal life, that, as time went by, become increasingly fascinating to many.

Indeed, after 14 years of media silence, Jackson decided in 1993 that it was OK to talk to Winfrey, whose interview with the pop star aired on ABC and was one of the most mesmerizing TV interviews ever broadcast. (We couldn’t find any legitimate version online, but click here for a transcript of that interview.)

Equally compelling were Jackson’s interviews with Walters and Sawyer—hightlights of those interviews aired on ABC’s Jackson special last night.

–Chuck Ross


  1. Sorry, I have to correct the “revisionist” history going on here. Jackson struggled in 1982 just to get Billie Jean on the network – it was then CBS head Walter Yetnikoff’s infamous (and profane) threat to yank all of CBS’ artists from MTV if they didn’t play Jackson’s videos that got Jackson on the network at all. That fact, in and of itself, shows people knew how important MTV already was in 1982. It had a huge influence right out of the gate. It was early 1983 before Billie Jean hit regular rotation, and prior to that, MTV was already cranking out video stars like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Blondie, to name only a few. MTV was the superior entity here, not Jackson – it was Jackson’s decision to premiere the Thriller video on MTV (possibly exclusively for a certain amount of time) on MTV that made Jackson into a pop icon. By no means did MTV get made by Jackson – it was, in fact, the other way around. If not FOR MTV, Jackson may not have had the venue to break out on, his visual was clearly as important as his music – he knew that and made it work to his benefit. But no, the facts bear out that no matter what a former MTV President says (especially when he was not president at the time) does not make it true. Maybe a little bit better fact checking next time…

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