Well, I have to say that I have a generally more favorable impression of MTV, which I take from being born in the hinterlands as opposed to the metropole. Dunno about anyone else here, but refinnej, eli, and thers are all city kids, and so didn't have MTV until 84 or 85, at which point yes, it sucked. But from 1981-84, there was an amazing amount of new and experimental music on MYV, things I still have trouble finding on CD. Slow Children, Tenpole Tudor, weird stuff like Total Coelo--there was a lot on early MTV that never made it to radio.
Now, Thers assures me that the late entry of MTV into the lives of NYC dwellers was a mob thing: I honestly have no idea. But I have a general sense that, in those early days, MTV had no idea what they had, what they were doing, what its effect would be. They were just plowing into a new technology with little thought. And they played the videos they had, which tended to be sort of edgy.
Part of this might be an American thing: European TV had been showing videos for a couple of years, and so the majority of videos were either by foreign artists (British supergroup Asia made videos that were unthinkably complex for the time) or by American artists trying to break into that market. In the states, there were a few late night weekend shows which played videos, and I think the show "Fridays" did, too. So the video world in those early days was skewed toward either the foreign or the experimental.
And record companies actively discouraged established artists from making videos. In a recent interview, Jeff Murphy of Shoes talked about their experience with early videos:
JM: We shot four videos in late 1979 for the European market (MTV was still two years away): "Too Late," "Tomorrow Night," "Cruel You" and "In My Arms Again" and they were some of the earliest videos played on MTV. At the time, some of the VJs actually wore Shoes T-shirts on the air! VH-1 still plays them from time to time, but by today's standards they look very primitive, being shot on videotape instead of film in a live performance format. We shot all four in one day. As MTV asked us for additional videos two years later, Elektra refused saying MTV was 'a flash in the pan' and 'no big deal' (They actually owned it, as MTV was a WEA/AmEx creation). That proved to be a fatal mistake.
If the people who owned MTV were telling established artists not to bother, and refusing to fund the video process, it's no wonder that what made it to the airwaves was the weird and quirky. By the mid-80's, record companies had tipped wise, but by that time the indie scene was already cranking up. MTV and the labels formed a pretty solid seal for a number of years--the years my commenters are complaining about, and justly.
Thre's a pretty decent timeline here.
Obviously, lots to think about.