The video for this song is often credited with breaking the color barrier on MTV, which debuted August 1, 1981. The clip for "Pass The Dutchie
" by Musical Youth was the first video by a black act to make regular rotation on the network, but they were considered a novelty, with no member older than 16.
Jackson's "Billie Jean" video was the first to make heavy rotation, and more black faces started appearing on the network soon after, notably Prince. MTV was accused of racism in this era, notably by Rick James, whose "Super Freak
" clip was rejected by the network. MTV was programmed by guys with radio backgrounds who tried to program it like a radio station with a rock format, something that proved impossible because they didn't have enough videos by rock artists. What they did have were lots of European acts (like Musical Youth), who had been making videos for years, and were overwhelmingly white. Record companies wouldn't budget for videos by their black artists since they didn't think MTV would play them, so the network could make the argument that they simply didn't have any good videos by black artists that were worthy. That argument went out the window when Jackson made the "Billie Jean" video, which was startlingly innovative, and a precursor to the video game Dance Dance Revolution
, as some scenes showed Jackson performing his dance moves by stepping on squares as they would light up.
Despite the production value and Jackson's star quality, MTV didn't play the video until the song was already a #1 hit. Les Garland, who ran the network at the time, claims that they loved the video and played it as soon as they could, but interviews with executives at Jackson's record company and with others familiar with the matter suggest otherwise. In the book I Want My MTV
, multiple sources who worked at MTV claimed that the network wanted to air the "Beat It" video first, because Eddie Van Halen played on it and the song fit their format. Walter Yetnikoff, who was head of CBS Records (Jackson's was signed to its subsidiary, Epic), recalls threatening to pull all CBS videos from MTV if they didn't play "Billie Jean." He says he threatened to bring Jackson's producer Quincy Jones in on it as well, and the network acquiesced. When MTV started playing the clip, it was first put in medium rotation, then promoted to heavy rotation when viewers loved it. When the video for "Beat It" was delivered, that one also went into hot rotation. For a two-month stretch in the summer of 1983, both videos were getting constant airplay, establishing Jackson as a video star. His next video effort was for "Thriller
," which revolutionized the form.