Forty years ago, MTV changed music forever.
MTV EXPLODED on the music scene with its debut on Aug. 1, 1981, as a business and technology experiment. Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Co., only slightly better known as WASEC, was a joint venture between Warner Communications and American Express.
MTV’s goal was to sell goods and financial services interactively into homes through newly created black boxes that sat atop console TVs — giant bricks with buttons that communicated with just-launched satellites beaming the first cable television networks. CNN and HBO were already running; a cable exec and rock ‘n’ roll fan named John Lack eventually convinced WASEC that a channel showing prerecorded music clips (mostly live footage; “music videos” as we’d come to know them didn’t much exist yet) would besot teenagers and therefore pimple cream and soft drink advertisers. The good news was that the record companies had a few boxes full of these short clips just sitting around and would give them to this startup channel for free.
MTV launched with approximately 250 videos. The first weeks and months, which were not carried in either New York or Los Angeles, On August 1, 1981, the world of music and television changed forever when MTV made its debut on satellite and cable television, when John Lack announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock and Roll!” Playing in the background was the video of the Space Shuttle Columbia and footage of Apollo 11. A theme song played in the background and then the very first MTV music video followed. MTV was born into only a few thousand households in New Jersey, the only place MTV was available at first, we should note. It was such an unknown that it wasn’t even carried on cable in New York City where its shows were taped, and the MTV on-air hosts and staff had to rent a school bus to take them from Manhattan to a restaurant in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to catch the network’s debut.
About a year later, still struggling for ad dollars and household penetration, MTV execs, trained in the segregationist playlists of rock radio, bowed to record-label pressure and aired the new Billie Jean video by pop star Michael Jackson. Months later, with ratings ticking upward, they’d screen Jackson’s transformational Thriller video every hour on the hour, and Michael and Madonna would become the network’s prom king and queen. What followed was the metal, then new-wave glamour and even the Boss-Bruce Springsteen wiggled his butt for pop culture’s new star-making machine.
Those first VJ’s (video jockeys) became famous themselves, including Mark Goodman, JJ Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Martha Quinn and Alan Hunter.
Not only did MTV feature all sorts of genres of Rock music, but it also aired hilarious video parodies of Weird Al Yankovic.
All sorts of innovations followed, such as live concert broadcasts, reality shows (such as Jersey Shore), comedy, movies, cartoons (such as Beavis and Butthead), and of course, the MTV Awards. Plain old music videos became less of the programming. Not to worry, because MTV also launched “sister channels” featuring music videos such as VH1, MTV2, and CMT (country music).
However, as MTV turns 40, it’s truly a global brand. So to celebrate the anniversary on Sunday, Aug. 1, we rewound the videotapes in our head to review the past four decades of MTV to bring you 40 factoids about the history of the channel.
1. It’s alive!: With the words, “Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll,” from the executive, the crunchy guitar riffing of MTV’s theme song, and a mash-up clip of the launches of Apollo 11 and the Challenger space shuttle, the network went live.
2. Our new friends: Video jockey, or VJ, Mark Goodman and his many curls were first on-screen, followed by the other original VJs: clean-cut Alan Hunter, rocker chick Nina Blackwood, classic radio jock J.J. Johnson, and girl-next-door Martha Quinn.
3. The first video: The arty British band the Buggles were little-known in the United States at the time, but they got to launch MTV thanks to the prophetically titled song “Video Killed The Radio Star.” Film composer Hans Zimmer, who has 11 Academy Award nominations for films such as “Inception,” “The Dark Knight,” and “The Lion King,” for which he won an Oscar, was a Buggle then.
4. First day: A lot of people know the Buggles’ trivia, but what came next? Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the second song played, followed by the 3rd, “She Won’t Dance With Me,” by Rod Stewart. Sir Rod had 11 different videos played in the first 24 hours of MTV, so he had to know the network’s answer to “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy” was definitely yes. Enjoy the 1st 2 hours of the first episode of MTV. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJtiPRDIqtI That first video, the answer to the trivia question, “What was the first MTV video?” was the ever so apropos “Video Killed the Radio Star” performed by The Buggles.
5. Are we not winners? Early in 1982, MTV launched one of the first of many viewer contests with Hawaiian Holiday With Devo, for which a woman from Devo’s hometown of Akron, Ohio had her name pulled out of a barrel to whip the rest of the contestants, whip ’em good. Most notorious contest? Probably Lost Weekend with Van Halen, in which a fan went to Detroit to party with the band.
6. Heavy rotation: On Day 1, the Who’s “You Better You Bet” was the first video ever to be played twice on its way to five times total that day. By March 1982, such videos as “Spirits In The Material World” by the Police, “Centerfold” by J. Geils, “Burnin’ For You” from Blue Öyster Cult, and “Harden My Heart” by Quarterflash was played at least four times a day.
7. You want your what? In the spring of 1982, MTV still lacked a presence in huge markets like New York City and Los Angeles. Enter the “I Want My MTV!” campaign in which stars such as John Cougar Mellencamp, David Bowie, Mick Jagger and Hall and Oates taped promotional spots urging viewers to call their local cable operators and tell them, “I want my MTV!” Cable companies were flooded and quickly added the channel.
8. British Invasion Part Deux: By MTV’s first anniversary, record stores had reported a new phenomenon: groups such as Men At Work, Bow Wow Wow and Adam Ant were selling tons of records without local radio play. Soon, the combination of attractive English artists with artistic music videos made for a second British Invasion with artists such as Duran Duran, the Human League, Culture Club and Spandau Ballet breaking out in the U.S. in ways unimaginable before MTV.https://31a4f7ef9d1d9bc888b9a2d62ffa166a.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-38/html/container.html?n=0
9. Taking it off: Costumed hard-rockers Kiss made their first appearance sans makeup in on the network in 1983 in an interview with original VJ JJ Jackson.
10. Blacked out: In the early years of MTV the channel showed few videos by Black artists. Rick James, whose 1981 hit “Super Freak” was one of the videos left out, was a vocal critic of the network, and David Bowie challenged VJ Mark Goodman about the lack of diversity in a 1983 on-air interview. MTV’s excuse: They were focused on rock more than R&B, funk or soul.
11. Breaking barriers: Michael Jackson’s videos for “Billie Jean” and “Beat It,” both released in March 1983, kicked the door open for videos from Black artists such as Prince’s “Little Red Corvette,” Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money.” By the time Jackson released the mini-movie music video “Thriller” in December 1983, its arrival was a cultural event for both the artist and the network.
12. Film music: The 1983 movie “Flashdance,” which some critics sniffed was little more than a series of music videos, was the first film to provide clips from the film and soundtrack for MTV to use. Free promotion on MTV helped it become a hit, and many movies followed suit.
13. Where it started: In 1984, MTV presented director Richard Lester with a special award as Father of the Music Video for the template he set with the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” in 1964 and “Help!” a year later. Look at how Lester filmed “Can’t Buy Me Love” in the first and “Ticket To Ride” in the second and it’s clear the influence he and the Beatles had on music video.
14. Or was it a Monkee? Michael Nesmith of the Monkees was intrigued by music video in the late ’70s; some consider the video for his 1977 song “Rio” to be one of the first true music videos. Nesmith also collaborated on PopClips, a music video series that ran on Nickelodeon in 1980 and early 1981, with John Lack, who later went to MTV and is the voice who declared, “Ladies and gentleman, rock and roll!”
15. Like an awards show: MTV launched the Video Music Awards in 1984 with winners such as Cyndi Lauper — Best Female video for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” — receiving trophies shaped like the “moon man” of MTV’s logo. Madonna had yet to break out big, but her live performance of “Like A Virgin,” with a 17-foot-tall wedding cake, a combination bustier/wedding gown and Boy Toy belt buckle surely helped.
16. Love and hate: By the mid-’80s, MTV was a major player in the music industry. Mark Knopfler wrote the “I want my MTV” tagline into the Sting-sung chorus of the Dire Straits 1985 hit “Money For Nothing.” The punks, however, were less amused. That same year the Dead Kennedys included a song titled “MTV — Get Off The Air” on their “Frankenchrist” album.
17. Live TV, Live Aid: The 1985 global benefit concert Live Aid got a few hours of coverage on ABC, but MTV pulled many more viewers with 16 hours of performances from the London and Philadelphia stages.
18. Show for me: Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer” is said to be the most-played video in MTV history. With good reason, the wildly creative stop-motion animation broke the mold for what a video could be and remains an artistic high for the medium.
19. Changing guard: In the early days, MTV often featured guest VJs from Eddie Murphy and Tina Turner to Phil Collins and Dan Aykroyd. In 1986-87, all five of the OG VJs left the network with new hosts such as Downtown Julie Brown taking over.
20. Themed shows: In the pre-internet era, the alternative music-formatted MTV show “120 Minutes” was must-see TV upon its 1986 debut. Other themed shows soon followed. Heavy metal fans got “Headbangers Ball” in 1987. And “MTV Unplugged,” originally hosted by indie singer-songwriter Jules Shear, delivered a stripped-down take on live music in 1989 before it hosted memorable performances from the likes of Nirvana, Lauryn Hill and Jay-Z.
21. Run-DoogieMD: “Yo! MTV Raps” debuted on MTV Europe in 1987, and jumped the pond a year later when it premiered in the U.S. with the rap group Run-DMC as hosts of the pilot. Its mix of videos, interviews and guest appearances helped hip-hop break out. How much so? There’s an episode of “Doogie Howser MD” where the whiz-kid doctor played by Neil Patrick Harris wears a “Yo! MTV Raps” T-shirt.
22. Guitars, Cadillacs: MTV didn’t play much country music until crossover artists such as Shania Twain, Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood came along. Dwight Yoakam gets credited for the first-ever country song on the channel with his 1986 debut single “Honky-Tonk Man.”
23. VMAs Controversy No. 1: The Video Music Awards, by bringing envelope-pushing performers together in one room, and giving them a national TV audience, have long invited controversy. Exhibit A: In 1989, the comedian Andrew Dice Clay was “banned for life” after he included his profane nursery rhyme bit during introduction of Cher.
24. VMAs Controversy No. 2: The 1991 show was particularly memorable. Bret Michaels and C.C. DeVille of the band Poison got in a fistfight, because why not? And Paul Ruebens, as Pee-wee Herman, made his first appearance after his arrest for lewd conduct in an adult movie theater, asking after the standing ovation that greeted him, “Heard any good jokes lately?”
25. Behind the camera: In 1992, the network decided to add the names of music video directors to their clips. This surely helped creative filmmakers such as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and David Fincher make the jump to features. And Michael Bay, too.
26. Social activities: Not everything on the network was fun and games. Starting with the Choose Or Lose initiative in 1992, and bringing then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton onto the network, MTV worked to get its young viewers engaged in civic affairs, and especially to register to vote and show up at the polls.
27. It’s so real!: “The Real World,” which debuted on MTV in 1992, is widely considered to be one of the first-ever reality TV series, and only the first of many the network would eventually air as its shift from a purely music channel evolved.
28. Playing games: Comedian Jay Mohr got his start in 1992 as host of the MTV lip-sync game show “Lip Service,” going on from there to “Saturday Night Live,” and then to numerous TV and film roles.
29. VMAs Controversy No. 3: Answer: Shock jock Howard Stern and his bare butt as Fartman. Question: Things we can’t unsee.
30. Heh-heh heh: MTV also found success in animation with “Beavis and Butt-Head,” which debuted in 1993, after a short by creator Mike Judge aired a year earlier on MTV’s first animation series, “Liquid Television.” The two dimwitted doofuses were rude, crude and hilarious. And nachos still rule!
31. Funny talk: Comedian Jon Stewart got one of his first-ever TV gigs in 1992 as host of “You Wrote It, You Watch It,” an MTV sketch show in which viewers sent in stories and a troupe of actors acted them out. A year later, he launched “The Jon Stewart Show,” the network’s first talk show, which eventually jumped to syndication.
32. Where’s the music? By the mid-’90s, as reality and scripted series took larger and larger bites out of the MTV schedule, the music videos that had made the network started to disappear. From 2000 to 2008, the average of music videos on MTV shrank from eight hours to three hours a day. In 2007, Justin Timberlake took the stage at the VMAs to say, “Play more damn videos!”
33. Here it is! Starting in 1998, “Total Request Live” became one of the main shows on MTV that featured actual videos, with viewers able to call in and vote for videos in the daily countdown show. It also made host Carson Daly a star, sending the former KROQ-FM (106.7) DJ on his way to years as host of NBC’s late-late-night talk show “Last Call With Carson Daly” and currently a correspondent on “Today.”
34. Turning 20: In 2001, the network celebrated its 20th anniversary with a 12-hour marathon of 100 significant videos titled “MTV20: “Buggles to Bizkit,” followed by the live broadcast of a concert that included acts such as Run-DMC, Billy Idol, Jane’s Addiction, Busta Rhymes, and yes, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit.
35. Gettin’ really real: The millennium saw MTV find even more success with popular reality shows. Johnny Knoxville and the crew on “Jackass” established the formula of dumb stunt + pain = comedy. “The Osbournes” let Ozzy Osbourne mumble his way to beloved TV dad status. And “Punk’d” pranked celebrities under the gleeful oversight of Ashton Kutcher.
36. SoCal kiddies: Another strand of MTV’s reality TV programming saw the soapy drama of such series as “Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County” and its spinoff “The Hills” prove that attractive well-to-do young people are marketable on television. Who knew?!
37. Gym tan laundry: “Jersey Shore,” the highest-rated show in MTV history, debuted in 2009 and suddenly we all learned that there are actual people among us who are named things like Snooki, The Situation and Jwoww.
38. On the red carpet: Fashion choices for the VMAs are typically the wildest of any award show out there. There was the year Lil’ Kim showed up with a breast entirely intentionally exposed but for a fabric pasty. And there was a year a group of drag queens performed a Madonna medley dressed in her iconic costumes. As for Lady Gaga, we have two words: meat dress.
39. VMAs Controversy No. 4: Yo, Tay, Imma let you finish, but Kanye West had one of the best VMAs controversies of all time when in 2009 he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech to essentially declare that Beyoncé should have won Swift’s award. Beyoncé, because she is queen, later invited Taylor back on stage to finish her interrupted remarks.
40. The spinoffs: Over the years, MTV has expanded to include different specialty channels in the U.S. and around the world. If you can find MTV Classic, which formerly was known as VH-1 Classic, or MTV Live, you’ll get your best chance to recapture the magic that was MTV in its early days when music was king.