To anyone who witnessed it live on TV — or even watched it much later in YouTube clips — the launch of MTV was a monumental moment. A countdown. File footage of a rocket launch. The unveiling of the now-iconic chunky logo. And the legendary choice of first music video: the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
But at the Manhattan headquarters of this new cable channel ... static.
When those first images were transmitted, starting at 12:01 a.m. on August 1, 1981, New York City’s cable didn’t even carry MTV. Neither did many big-city carriers. The concept of a channel dedicated to music was a tough sell. One executive says that on launch day, MTV had access to only about 800,000 households. And so the MTV staff — executives, workers, even the now-famous video jockeys, or “VJs” — decamped to a bar across the Hudson River, near Fort Lee, New Jersey, where they could commandeer a television for the historic debut
“When the music started and that rocket took off, you heard crying and cheering,” says VJ Nina Blackwood. “It was like this baby being born.”
But what they saw after that was less than celebratory. Here’s Bob Pittman, MTV’s cofounder and first head of programming: “The first hour was an absolute disaster.”
Back at the channel’s operations center, the videotape cartridges containing the pretaped opening segments got mixed up and were played out of order. VJ Mark Goodman was supposed to appear first, to introduce the channel, but viewers saw Alan Hunter instead. “It was like watching the Super Bowl and [our] receiver drops the ball in the end zone,” says promotion director John Sykes. Adds Pittman: “Whatever party someone else was having, I was having perhaps one of the more miserable moments of my life, because I saw this whole great new MTV going down in flames.”
Fortunately for all involved — and for us — the story of MTV wasn’t written on a single night 40 years ago. Despite its early struggles, the channel quickly became a pop culture phenomenon, captivating a generation of music fans by transforming songs into micro-movies and introducing America to a new wave of image-conscious artists. AARP interviewed the major players in front of, and behind, the camera to get the true story of how MTV came to be.
The creative origins of MTV could be traced back to a guy in a knit cap. Consider Mike Nesmith, one of the four Monkees, that band of romping rockers who starred in a popular prime-time TV show in the ’60s. The show, which featured quick-cut comedy interspersed with music, could be seen today as proto-music video. Still, the Monkees and their producers can’t be credited with inventing this style; in fact, they were influenced by a Beatles movie, A Hard Day’s Night. But even after the show went off the air and Nesmith ditched his signature headwear, he was still interested in the concept of a song you didn’t just listen to, but also watched.
In 1977, Nesmith shot a video for his solo song “Rio,” and he was looking for a way to get it on TV. He pitched Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, a major player in the then-emerging cable TV industry, on a music video show called PopClips. (Music videos had started to gain some popularity in Britain, so there was more to show than just “Rio” ad nauseam.) PopClips earned a slot on kids channel Nickelodeon, which contributed to the idea of a dedicated channel. But Nesmith, who had already found fame as a musician and had a family fortune (his mother invented what became Liquid Paper), dropped out of the project. “I didn’t have to work, so I wasn’t looking for a job,” he says, “I thought the idea was terrific.”
Enter Pittman, then a 26-year-old radio programming wunderkind, who took on the challenge. “I had been an intern at WNBC Radio, where Bob Pittman had been the program director,” remembers Martha Quinn, one of the original VJs. “And literally, the halls reverberated with the legend of Bob Pittman, because he had been the youngest program director of a major radio station.”
“The basic thesis of MTV was that you had a generation that had grown up on rock ’n’ roll and TV, but the two had never come together,” Pittman says. Sure, rock had been showcased sporadically on television. Some of the most memorable moments in the first years of Saturday Night Live, for example, were performances by bands like Talking Heads, Devo, the Rolling Stones and Blondie. But a whole TV channel dedicated to prerecorded rock videos? It was clean and simple. Fred Seibert, MTV’s first creative director, remembers just how simple: “About 30 days after I joined the company, a memo was handed out. It was a page and a half, Xeroxed, and it basically laid out the programming strategy.”
Amazingly, the channel almost wasn’t called MTV.
“Bob had decided the name of the channel would be TV1,” says Seibert. “We all rebelled, because televisions don’t have 1’s on them; they had 2 through 13 at the time. He very reluctantly said, ‘Well, you guys come up with something better.’ So six of us got together, and we just argued about it for days. We finally compromised on Music Television. We said, ‘OK, it’ll be MTV.’ We hated it, but it was the only thing that anybody could agree on.”
MTV’s struggles continued beyond that first night. It faced two prime challenges.
First, it had to get on cable systems. That meant convincing the operators that a youth-oriented channel playing rock music was worth their investment. “We thought this was great,” says talent coordinator Gale Sparrow. “People will be signing up because it’s music, it’s hitting a whole different demographic, it’s new and it’s exciting. But cable operators didn’t get us.”
Sometimes the VJs — “the talent” — were called on to help sell the channel. Imagine bushy-haired Goodman sitting down with a middle-aged guy in an ill-fitting suit. “We’d go out to dinner with the cable operators, who were definitely not rockers,” says Goodman. “So early on, it was like the Wild West just trying to get people to sign up.”
Hunter remembers the intense push to find an audience. “After it started, it was just full bore: How do we make this thing work? From the top of the executive suite on down: How do we make any money? How do we get American Express and Warner Brothers not to kill us all for wasting their dough?”
The second problem was that MTV needed more programming; music videos, as a concept, were still in their infancy. Record labels would need to be convinced to foot the bill for more shoots, then hand the videos over for MTV to air, free of charge. “When we launched, the dirty little secret was we could only get our hands on 250 videos that were even close to being considered interesting to play on MTV,” Pittman says. “But the strategic bet we made was, if we succeed, they’ll make more.”
VJ Quinn remembers trying to explain to people who didn’t get the channel just what she did for a living. “Back in 1981, when you told someone it’s like being a DJ but on TV, the closest thing that anybody with pop culture awareness could conjure up was WKRP in Cincinnati.”
But those who did get the channel started to love it. Many things that are deemed hip and cool first gain acceptance on the coasts and then move into the middle of the country. Because of the circumstances — those reluctant cable operators — MTV was almost the opposite.
“Bands were touring, and they were in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was one of our earlier markets,” Sparrow says. “They’d be in their hotel room, and they’d turn on the TV and see MTV, and they were like, ‘How come we don’t know about this?’ ”
Blackwood remembers the reverse-phenomenon all too well. “They sent me to San Antonio for a personal appearance. They had a limo for me. We’d go to this mall, and there was a line wrapped around the whole thing. I said to the driver, ‘Who’s here?’ He said, ‘You are!’ ”
“I want my MTV!” proved to be one of the great marketing slogans of our time — later even used prominently in the Dire Straits song “Money for Nothing” — but when it was conceived, it was as a somewhat desperate advertising “trick,” recalls Tom Freston, then head of marketing, “to go over the cable operators’ heads and go right to the consumer.” These ads, featuring rock stars like Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger yelling the now-famous line, were aired on other channels and aimed at viewers whose cable systems didn’t yet carry MTV. They immediately made viewers feel as if they were missing out on something cool. The ads also helped MTV gain acceptance among artists. “Once Pete and Mick did it, everybody came in,” says Seibert. “They all realized that they were going to have a front seat in what was going to be the next giant promotional medium for their records.”
Indeed, it soon seemed that all of America recognized the MTV logo and embraced the concept of music videos. This also vaulted the VJs into their own unique stardom. “All of sudden, there I was introducing The Police at Shea Stadium,” says Quinn.
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MTV staff, too, felt the changes. “Every musician wanted to be part of it,” says Joan Myers, who worked as an executive assistant. “It was not a rare occasion when Huey Lewis or Duran Duran came up to the office.”
Meanwhile, MTV was having an impact on the charts, as such video-friendly acts as the Go-Go’s, Billy Idol and Madonna logged hits. “It was of huge importance to the youth of America at that point,” says producer Joe Davola. “There was nothing else like it before. It was a national radio station.”
Being part of this national radio station turned the VJs into television stars. And with TV, there often comes drama, even if manufactured. “They felt early on that Martha and I made a cute pair,” says Hunter. “The audience was starting to identify us as a possible pair. That’s why they told me to downplay my marriage at the time. I said, ‘That will not go over well, fellas. Stop taking my ring off.’ ”
As the audience grew, a flaw emerged with that simple programming strategy. MTV was modeled on an FM rock station, which might have been fine if you didn’t see the acts. But you could, and what you saw was mostly white faces. As TV’s only dedicated music channel, MTV had to adapt to the reality that it could not cater only to the rock ’n’ roll market. It had to do a better job of reflecting America. Black artists such as Rick James and label execs started to complain about their music videos not receiving airtime. At the end of a sit-down interview with Mark Goodman (this particular footage was not aired at the time but unearthed years later), David Bowie also questioned the channel’s programming decisions. “We finished our interview and I said, ‘Was there something that you wanted to ask?’ And that’s when he took off,” Goodman says. “I tried to explain what rock programming was and failed miserably. I should mention that when that Bowie interview happened, we were already airing ‘Billie Jean.’ ”
Michael Jackson had become a popular artist, but that hit song, released in January 1983, helped make him the King of Pop. The stylish music video played a big role, soon followed by more videos in heavy rotation, including “Beat It” and the mini-movie “Thriller,” directed by feature filmmaker John Landis. MTV also embraced Prince, Lionel Richie and Whitney Houston, among other Black stars, and by the mid-’80s, started to get into rap.
“Mark and I remember watching ‘Billie Jean’ for the first time,” says Hunter. “We said, ‘Whoa, that’s amazing!’ We didn’t say, ‘Wow, it’s amazing now that we finally got a Black face on MTV.’ ”
MTV’s original format lasted through the ’80s, but the novelty was starting to wear off. To grow further, in the late ’80s, the channel started to segment its music videos into specialty shows like Headbangers Ball, Yo! MTV Raps and 120 Minutes. It even launched a dance show called Club MTV, reproducing shows that had worked in an earlier era of music on television, American Bandstand and Soul Train.
But the big shift came in the ’90s, when MTV moved beyond music in favor of youth-oriented reality TV programs. (The Real World was its first big hit reality show, followed later by Jersey Shore and Teen Mom.)
Artists have continued to make music videos these past 30 years, although they are mostly streamed (and shared) through online platforms like YouTube. More than a decade ago, major record label groups in America formed a joint venture called Vevo as a music video channel for the streaming era.
Still, the impact of MTV lives on, as do the memories of hours upon hours spent in front of the TV set. “If you think of all the youth mediums that there have been that have succeeded and endured, you could say Saturday Night Live, Rolling Stone and MTV,” says Freston. “There aren’t that many youth brands that endure a long time.”
Says Hunter, “I thank MTV every day for why people still care about who I am.”
Craig Rosen is a Los Angeles–based writer and editor who has contributed to Billboard, Yahoo Music and Tidal. He’s also the author of R.E.M. Inside Out: The Stories Behind Every Song and The Billboard Book of Number One Albums. In the ’80s, he watched a lot of MTV.