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MTV Revolution

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At exactly one minute past midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, a new creation — a TV channel showing music videos — roared over airwaves. To the strains of the first song, the Buggles’ prophetic ”Video Killed the Radio Star,” MTV was born.

”Video” was the last we ever saw of the Buggles, but MTV — like the rock & roll it offered — was here to stay. The idea was to achieve with music what ESPN had with sports: to devote a whole channel to the genre with an attitude as irreverent and unconventional as possible. Then-MTV president Robert Pittman, 27, hit up record companies for free promotional rock videos. The initial repertoire wasn’t impressive: a measly 250 musical clips (30 by Rod Stewart) played over and over, 24 hours a day, punctuated by one of five unknown VJs offering sometimes sharp, often inane commentary.

The formula worked. Originally available to only 2.5 million subscribers, MTV cost Warner a modest $30 million to launch. By 1983 it was the highest-rated cable channel to date, reaching 13 million households, and by 1984 it was in the black.

MTV not only jump-started the stalled music industry, its fast, flashy style also drove changes in fashion, TV, and publishing. And it altered how viewers perceived rock itself: Clip-resistant or untelegenic bands were overshadowed by such bland but good-looking groups as Duran Duran, who adapted to the cutting-edge aesthetics of music videos. The channel maintained a lily-white playlist until 1983, when, reportedly because of intense pressure from Columbia Records, Michael Jackson’s ”Billie Jean” video finally danced onto the screen.

Though MTV was slow to embrace rap, it was quick to create a new channel, VH-1, for the hipness-impaired. And while ”The Week in Rock” has become the TV source of choice for music news, other additions — game shows, fashion programs, comedy, and, soon, a home-shopping network — have left some viewers wondering if the channel has forgotten what the ”M” stands for. MTV has tried to stay fresh with such stunts as auctioning off Jon Bon Jovi’s home and running a ”Make My Video” contest for Madonna’s ”True Blue” clip. In 1982, Sting and Mick Jagger urged rock fans to call their cable companies and demand, ”I want my MTV!” They got it: MTV now reaches 248 million homes in 58 countries — even if it turned out to be a bit different than they thought.

TIME CAPSULE
August 1, 1981

The Empire Strikes Back struck gold in a second theatrical release, Judy Mazel’s The Beverly Hills Diet ate up the nonfiction list, and viewers had pomp withdrawal from the wedding of Prince Charles and Princess Diana three days earlier.

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