MTV co-founder John Sykes, now CEO of Playlist.com, says "Billie Jean" and "Thriller" prompted other acts like Madonna and ZZ Top to invest in videos, which at the time created a more immediate effect on album sales. That higher-quality content also increased MTV's cachet with audiences and advertisers. "We were growing nicely during our first couple of years, but Michael Jackson put MTV on the map," Sykes says. "There were very few VCRs out there at the time, and we heard that people set their alarm clocks in the middle of the day to turn on MTV and catch the 'Thriller' video. We would see our ratings for the channel shoot through the roof. Every time we played it, we would see ratings double or triple."
Jackson was perhaps the first and only artist to attract well-known movie directors to work with him: Landis, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and John Singleton all directed his videos. "Some artists set up an [ongoing]relationship with a video team, but Michael was more interested in the 'wow' factor," Flattery says.
A more lasting effect may have been on a new generation of movie directors that got their start in music videos—which became more ambitious after "Thriller" ushered in an age of cinematic, high-concept videos with budgets to match. "We saw videos get more sophisticated—more story lines, way more intricate choreography," says Nina Blackwood, an MTV VJ from 1981 to 1986. "You look at those early videos and they were shockingly bad."
The irony is that with the decline of the music industry's fortunes, and the rise of viral video, the bar that Jackson raised has dropped. Smaller label budgets and the popularity of online videos have reduced the need for a visual epic; the faster something can be made to stir up YouTube buzz, the better.
"People have found clever ways to make great videos that don't require tons of money," says Rick Krim, executive VP of music and talent programming for VH1. "I don't know if we'll ever see another 'Thriller.' " But an appetite still exists for Jackson's videos, even for those too young to remember when the King of Pop was crowned. MTV had its highest-rated Friday in five months the day after Jackson's death; VH1 Classic scored its highest total day ratings on Saturday and its second-highest on Sunday, courtesy of a Jackson video marathon, according to the channel.
The video channels are likely to continue their Jackson-related programming for the time being. MTV will celebrate its 28th anniversary Aug. 1 by airing Jackson videos and footage and performances from its vaults, with celebrities paying tribute to him.
Of "Thriller," the video that changed everything, Leeds recalls, "We got a lot of flack and there was a lot of press about how the video scared little kids. But it was undeniable. It's probably the greatest video ever made."