MTV turns 30 today. To celebrate, we’re running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.
The first 59 minutes of MTV—12:01 a.m. to 1 a.m., exactly 30 years ago today—totally sucked. Not because the upstart cable network opened with the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” (which still rules), or because of the clip for Pat Benetar’s “You Better Run” that came a few minutes later (ditto). Not because of the affably bland ex-WPLJ DJ Mark Goodman, or how the ads for Mountain Dew, Trapper Keepers, or Dolby sound didn’t hit their targets, either. That first hour—which you can watch right here—sucked because nothing made any sense. “All the V.J. segments were out of sequence,” founder Bob Pittman later remembered. “They would say, ‘That was,’ and it wasn’t, and ‘Coming up is,’ and it wasn’t coming up. The polarization on the wires was also switched, so if you were listening in stereo, it was fine, but if you were in mono, it was canceling the sound out.”
Pittman and the rest of the first MTV staff could be excused for screwing up their first hour of TV (only a handful of cable subscribers in northern New Jersey were watching anyway—even the founders had to head to a Fort Lee sports bar to tune in). These were mostly radio people, after all, trying to find a way to make some money in the fledgling realm of cable television. They picked a good time: the music industry was seeking any strategy to reenergize itself in the midst of a multi-year slump after disco flamed out. Like so many startups that aimed to merge existing ways of doing things, MTV was a kludge in its earliest years, but at the same time it was also a quiet miracle of technological convergence. Venture capitalists and tech geeks take note: MTV was the 1980s’ most killer music app.
“Behold. A new concept is born. The best of TV, combined with the best of radio.” Like he’s trying to sell you a high-tech gizmo in an electronics store, OG MTV VJ Goodman explicitly links MTV’s futuristic melding of the visual and the aural. Soon-to-be teen idol Martha Quinn one-upped him during her own brief introduction, referring to the network as “the newest component of your stereo system.” A bit later, after airing videos from Rod Stewart and the Who, Goodman would pimp MTV’s first plug-in. “We’ve got something to help you keep MTV at your fingertips,” he explained, before introducing the Dial Position Sticker, available for the low cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope. “Stick it on your stereo dial, and it marks the exact spot where our sound comes in.” A decade and a half before the Web went wide, MTV had invented the browser bookmark.
“We’ll be doing for TV what FM did for radio,” Goodman predicted. How true that was. TVs in the early 1980s weren’t exactly equipped for full stereo sound, and MTV had to work with FM radio stations to simulcast the audio. Coming of age in the late ’60s to unite audiophiles and hippies, FM radio occasioned the rise of freeform jocks like Tom Donohue, who’d play all 12 minutes of “The End” to those properly tuned in. As the 70s wound on, however, FM station directors wanted to keep the freeform idea, but make it more predictable and profitable. Enter demographic research and the rise of the radio “consultant,” out of which the loathed Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) format emerged.
As this 1982 video sent to potential advertisers makes clear, MTV not only “speaks the language of radio,” it thoroughly adopted AOR’s demographic M.O. Radio consultants wouldn’t ever play anything that didn’t test well beforehand, and Pittman brought that mind-set to MTV. In the video, VJ Alan Hunter brags that MTV is “the most researched new channel in television history,” and J.J. Jackson recommends accessing the 18-34s by “talk(ing) to them through music.” Pittman—a youthful 29 when MTV launched—was part of the generation that had grown up with television and rock ‘n’ roll, and his idea was to seamlessly merge the two. In the process, he did something unheard of in the 1981 television world: He created an audience before launching his network.
Looking back, the first year or so of MTV was much more on the cutting edge of market research than music culture—it’d be a year or two before British new wave would come Stateside. Its main competitor at the time was the USA Network’s infinitely hipper Night Flight, which would rebroadcast arty rock films like Godard’s Rolling Stones epic Sympathy for the Devil and the great LA public access series New Wave Theater, on which you could see bands like Fear make fun of New York. As for MTV? They’d stick with the safe, market-tested stuff, thanks: during their first year, they’d play the same sets of videos over and over, pulled from newbies with AOR appeal (Pat Benetar) and classic rock warhorses (The Who, Rod Stewart, Queen). While Night Flight was playing Oingo Boingo and X, MTV was broadcasting live concerts from REO Speedwagon, Rush, Frank Zappa, and the Charlie Daniels Band. By 1984, the network had secured exclusive licenses with six major labels.
MTV grew amazingly fast. Between November 1981 and 1982, MTV subscriptions jumped 170%, compared to 48% for ESPN and 33% for HBO. Yet like any music startup, it still faced flak from labels, who were financing the production of the promotional clips and seeking to maximize their profits. A Billboard article from 1981 reported this familiar trope: “Labels… privately fret about the advantage of providing free clips on acts. Says one label executive, ‘I think MTV ought to be sharing some of our production costs for video. And I don’t think MTV should be making the video producers handle the burden of securing clearance rights.” And yes, even after nearly three decades of rock radio, there was still the worry that watching MTV might substitute for buying records, a fear assuaged by MTV’s first contest winner, who admitted to Billboard that “though he watches ‘four-six-eight-ten’ hours of MTV a day, he still buys records, getting albums by Triumph, the Cars and Red Rider because of clips he saw on MTV.”
“Call your cable company for details, so you can stereoize your TV.” Okay, so the initial catchphrases MTV made Goodman speak didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. They’d get better, though: by the middle of the decade, “I Want My MTV” (the me-first, pseudo-individualistic pronoun would of course reappear in 2.0 titles YouTube, MySpace, and Apple’s “i”-everything) became the slogan of a generation. And of course, the upstart network-as-convergence-technology would do to its competitors what Apple did during the rise of digital in the early 2000s: force them out of the market through the sheer force of relentless branding.