TeeVee Toons was founded in 1985 by Steve Gottlieb, a graduate of Yale University and Harvard Law. Gottlieb launched the label from his New York City apartment with the release of Television's Greatest Hits, an album featuring theme songs from classic TV shows that became a respectable seller. The San Francisco Chronicle called the album "the most fun you can have with your pants on", and the New York Times highlighted it as one of 1985's most notable business ideas.
In 1986, TeeVee Toons was shortened to TVT Records, a label that would sign and/or develop musical acts over the next couple of decades such as: The Saints, Shona Laing, Nine Inch Nails, The Connells, Aphex Twin, Tackhead, Underworld, Gravity Kills, Vallejo, Jurassic Five, Sevendust, Default, XTC, Guided By Voices, Jimmy Page and The Black Crowes, Bounty Killer, KMFDM, Brian Jonestown Massacre, The Holloways, The Cinematics, Towers of London, Gil Scott-Heron, Tha Eastsidaz, Just Jack, Wayne, Pay the Girl, Buck-O-Nine, New Years Day, The Strays, Blue Epic, Lil Jon, Ying Yang Twins, Pitbull, Teedra Moses, The Unband, and Ambulance LTD.
In 1988–89, TVT signed industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails, and they released their debut studio album Pretty Hate Machine on October 20, 1989. But there was tension between Gottlieb and NIN frontman Trent Reznor throughout the promotion. According to Reznor, Gottlieb called Nine Inch Nails' record an "abortion".  He said to him: "You fucked up what could have been a good career." When Pretty Hate Machine sold 1,000,000 copies, Gottlieb reacted rudely, ordering the band to sell 4 million copies of the follow-up. While NIN was on tour, TVT released an EP for the single Head Like A Hole that was longer in length than the original album, and started underpaying Reznor, along with pressuring him to make a follow-up record that sounded identical to Pretty Hate Machine. Scared that TVT would interfere with his creative control, Reznor, in secret, started recording what would become Broken in 1992. He met Jimmy Iovine, founder of Interscope Records, and finally, in 1992, Reznor and TVT reached an agreement where NIN would leave TVT and move to Interscope, but TVT would receive some of the royalties made from future NIN releases.
In 1992, TVT purchased the Chicago-based industrial music label Wax Trax! Records. This gave TVT the artists and/or catalogue releases of such acts as Ministry, My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult, KMFDM, and others.
In 1995, TVT started their official soundtrack imprint called TVT SOUNDTRAX headed by Patricia Joseph releasing television, film, and Broadway soundtracks. It expanded "Television's Greatest Hits" to an eight-volume series and released over 70 film and TV soundtracks, including the platinum Mortal Kombat soundtrack. Its theatrical music releases included the Stephen Sondheim Follies.
In 1996 Crain's named Gottlieb one of its forty under 40 Rising Stars to Watch, citing the 50% yearly growth of TVT.
In 1999 TVT completed a securitization that enabled it to raise $23.5 million in growth capital.
In 2000, TVT Records opened TVT Distribution, a distribution company for third party labels, among them Vagrant Records. TVT Distribution, in conjunction with Vagrant, went on to achieve gold album success with Dashboard Confessional.
The label's publishing arm, TVT Music Publishing signed songwriter/producers Scott Storch who won Top Producer of the Year for ASCAP in 2004, and Lil Jon who won Top Producer of the Year for BMI in 2005. Those artists, along with many others, helped TVT Music Publishing accumulate over a hundred US Hot 100 songs, recorded by such acts as Usher, Pink, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, and Justin Timberlake.
In 2000, TVT became the first label to put its entire catalog online available for downloading and free streaming by fans. In 2001, the label reached an amicable arrangement with Napster for use of TVT's artist copyrights, and TVT's CEO joined the Napster advisory board. Gottlieb appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2001 on a panel that included Richard Parsons, then head of Time Warner and Ken Berry, head of EMI, and artists Alanis Morissette and Don Henley. CEO Gottlieb served on the Board of Directors of Musicmatch (sold to Yahoo!).
TVT was one of the founding members of the Association of Independent Music (A2IM), an organization devoted to protecting independent labels' interests.
In 2002, the label got into a dispute with Lyor Cohen, then head of Island Def Jam. The dispute involved Cohen and Universal paying former TVT artist Ja Rule $8 million to not deliver an album paid for by TVT, and promised to TVT and instead deliver it to Universal. In the resulting litigation Universal was prohibited by the courts from releasing the album created with TVT's funding. In the ultimate trial over the claims of fraud and tortious interference, a jury awarded TVT a $132 million judgment. Universal appealed the ruling. On appeal, Cohen and Universal argued the existence of an agreement between the parties meant that their behavior was only a breach of contract and not a fraud or tort. The court agreed, reducing TVT's award to $126,000.
In 2007, TVT lost a $9 million lawsuit to Slip-N-Slide Records when a Florida judge ruled that Slip-N-Slide had legal rights to distribute an unreleased album it owned by rapper Pitbull that he recorded for Slip-N-Slide in 2001. TVT, who signed Pitbull several years later, had sought to notice third parties (such as record stores or digital download entities) that the distribution and sale of this album would violate TVT's exclusive right to create new music by the artist. The judge, however, ruled against TVT as Pitbull had made the recordings prior to signing with TVT, and awarded Slip-N-Slide the $9 million judgement as TVT had attempted to block the sale of the album. TVT filed for appeal but was unable to post the required bond, thus TVT filed for bankruptcy.
On February 19, 2008, Gottlieb stated "This is not the end of TVT." In June 2008, however, the digital music label The Orchard was declared the winning bidder by a New York bankruptcy court and gained control of TVT's artist contracts, catalogue recordings, and its distribution infrastructure, thus ending the TVT Records label imprint. The music publishing assets were transferred to TVT Music Enterprises, and later purchased by Reservoir Media Management.