The launch of cable television redefined television in the 1980s. While there was an obvious audience for 24-hour news and movies, making CNN and HBO almost sure-things from launch, music videos weren't looked upon as having much value at all. When MTV launched with cheap music videos, nobody anticipated that it would revolutionise entertainment.
MTV is one of the TV giants featured in the compelling new documentary series The Eighties, so with the spotlight placed on the rise of MTV, we’ve unearthed a whole bunch of facts (28!) about the channels origins and evolution.
1. Roots in financial services
American Express wanted to sell financial services to people via their televisions so they bought cable television company Warner Cable Corporation for $175 million in 1979. The plan was to use an interactive program they’d developed to reach every home in the network and sell credit cards.
Once the companies merged, they split it between a division responsible for building the cable infrastructure and an area responsible for programming. They had two main channels in the beginning: The Movie Channel and Nickelodeon. An executive decided they needed a third channel with a focus on music.
2. MTV had to be ready in 7 months
The Warner Amex board said ‘no’ to the original pitch to launch a 24-hour music channel, positioned as “radio with pictures”. After a little executive wrangling, MTV was approved on the proviso that it would be cheap to run because the record companies would provide music videos for free. MTV was approved for launch in January 1981 and its founders only had 7 months to build it because Warner Amex wanted it on-air in summer, which is when most fads began. They wanted teenagers and college students returning from their summer break to be talking about MTV.
3. The first video played was The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star
At midnight on 1 August 1981, MTV launched with Video Killed the Radio Star - a song that would go on to be prophetic for how the channel would change the music industry. Funnily enough, the second music video played was Pat Benatar’s You Better Run, programmed as a warning shot to the record companies who were still sceptical about MTV.
4. They began with only 250 videos
Music videos were in short supply at the beginning of the 80s, so MTV played whatever they could get their hands on. Many record companies in America didn’t believe in MTV and weren’t willing to provide music videos at their own cost. A bulk of the music videos MTV played came from Europe where record companies made short promotional films for their artists to be played on video jukeboxes - a popular new piece of technology at the time. With only 250 music videos being played over a 24-hour period, the early artists of MTV got a lot of exposure thanks to a combination of repetition and desperation.
5. The Second British Invasion
MTV helped British new wave bands become popular in America because they were the artists getting played in heavy rotation. In the early days of MTV it was only available in smaller American towns because the channel hadn’t been picked up in the big cities yet. Teenagers living in these towns would watch MTV and rush to their local record store to buy the albums of the bands they saw. Still, a few American record companies still didn’t get it. The Human League’s Don’t You Want Me Baby became a hit in the states thanks to MTV. Other acts to benefit include: Flock of Seagulls, Billy Idol, Spandau Ballet, Adam and the Ants, ABC, Bananarama, Soft Cell, Tears for Fears and Dupeche Mode. There would be one British band who would not only benefit from being on MTV, but would define the music video aesthetic for the rest of the decade, and that band was Duran Duran.
6. Hungry like Duran Duran
The legend goes that Duran Duran’s manager saw MTV and figured he could break the band in America by producing an outrageous music video that would get people talking. The idea was to make a video featuring a catwalk show with models, sumo wrestling, and sex. The video they made was for Girls on Film. MTV edited the video to eliminate its raunchy bits, but it still caused a stir and got Duran Duran the attention they wanted. Suddenly, every band wanted to make a video like Duran Duran. The band then went on to make the iconic videos of the era with Hungry Like the Wolf and Rio, both directed by the Australian director Russell Mulcahy, who’d quickly became seen as a music video auteur.
7. MTV lost $50 million in its first year but was saved from bankruptcy by $1
250 videos wasn’t going to sustain MTV long term so they needed to convince record companies to spend big making extravagant videos that would expand MTV’s roster and the appeal of the channel. More viewers meant more advertisers, which meant more revenue. The record companies were slowly coming around, they could see the sales spikes for records in MTV towns, but the advertisers were not interested.
The bosses at MTV figured they needed to get their channel into more homes so they came up with an advertising campaign consisting of four words: I want my MTV. They needed a big name to deliver the line and though a series of connections they landed a meeting with Mick Jagger. The MTV bosses flew to meet with Jagger who told them the Rolling Stones don’t do commercials. One of the MTV reps called the singer’s bluff by pointing out the Rolling Stones did a tour that was sponsored by a perfume company. Jagger then told them the Rolling Stones only do commercials when they’re paid a lot of money. MTV didn’t have the budget to secure the services of the Rolling Stones but a cocky executive threw down a $1 bill and told Jagger that’s all they could afford. Jagger loved the confidence and agreed to do it for $1. Once word got around the Rolling Stones were doing the ‘I Want My MTV’ commercial, they all wanted in.
When the campaign started going to air, cable television stations around America were flooded with phone calls from people saying ‘I want my MTV’ after being spurned on by their idols. The campaign resulted in MTV being picked up in every American state, many stations surrendering in order to stop the flood of calls, and it began to turn the fortunes of the channel around.
8. The Australian who directed the best clips
More people were getting exposed to MTV and directors were beginning to carve out their own careers making music videos. Duran Duran’s go-to guy, Mulcahy, would be one of the first music video auteurs who began working with the big stars in the ‘80s. Mulcahy directed the clip for Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes and it began getting played a lot on MTV. Someone saw the music video and decided they liked it so much that they would call Mulcahy to offer their congratulations. Sadly, Mulcahy wasn’t around to take the call but was informed by his assistant that a Mr. Steven Spielberg had left a message.
9. A nursery for Hollywood directors
Like Mulcahy, a lot of music video directors would develop reputations for being able to deliver clips that would catapult bands into superstardom using the power of MTV. A nursery of creative talent was created by the industry that sprung up around MTV as record labels began investing budgets in music video production. Many directors from the MTV days would make the leap to Hollywood. Mulcahy was hired to direct the cult hit Highlander. Other notable directors who made the transition include: David Fincher and Michael Bay.
10. First ever competition
‘One night stand with Journey’ was the first ever competition MTV rolled out. One lucky fan was flown to see the band in New York City, meet them backstage, and then they were on a plane back home within 24-hours. Don’t stop believing.
11. ZZ Top of the pops
MTV began to transform the music industry because an acts look now mattered as much as its sound, prompting criticism for giving a platform to artists who prioritised their image. Many argued MTV favoured the flashier bands and beautiful pop stars, but one band was going to challenge this theory: ZZ Top.
Prior to the 80s, ZZ Top had released 7 albums and achieved moderate success in America. In 1983, they released Eliminator, right as MTV was starting to rise. The band’s manager planned to shoot a series of music videos for the songs; Gimme All Your Lovin’, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. ZZ Top looked unlike any band on MTV; they looked more like bikers with their giant beards, so the plan was to have them appear in each video while a male fantasy played out with three women in the company of a downtrodden mechanic. The clips were put into high rotation on MTV and Eliminator became ZZ Top’s highest selling album.
12. Where are the black artists?
Few black artists made it onto MTV and people began to notice as the channel started to thrive in the early 80s. MTV stated the rejected videos from black artists, were done so because they didn’t fit the ‘album-oriented rock’ format of MTV. Rick James’ Super Freak was one of the excluded videos and the singer attacked MTV publicly for being racist. MTV's original head of talent and acquisition, Carolyn B. Baker, claimed she rejected Super Freak: "because there were half-naked women in it and it was a piece of crap. As a black woman, I did not want that representing my people as the first black video on MTV.”
Finger pointing began with MTV going on the defensive and claiming record companies weren’t investing in making videos for black artists. The record companies fired back by claiming they didn’t bother because they knew MTV weren’t going to play the videos. The startling proof of MTV’s bias was its resistance to playing anything by a new solo artist, Michael Jackson. But that was all about to change.
13. Moonwalking into lounge rooms nation-wide
Before 1983, Michael Jackson struggled to get played on MTV. Legend has it that the president of CBS Records International, Walter Yetnikoff, threatened to pull all their artists from MTV if they continued to ignore Jackson, who had just put out Thriller and submitted the video for Billie Jean. CBS had Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen on their books.
Tensions were high between CBS and MTV but then something big happened: Jackson performed during a television special to commemorate Mowtown’s 25th anniversary. Jackson took to the stage to perform Billie Jean in a fedora, black sequin jacket, and glove. Mid-performance, Jackson debuted his iconic moonwalk and people went wild. Following the performance, Thriller began to sell a million copies a week and certified Jackson as a solo artist. MTV began playing Billie Jean in high rotation and Jackson would become a staple of the channel setting a new standard for what a music video was with Thriller and Beat It.
14. Michael Jackson verses Prince
The arrival of Jackson on MTV (finally) paved the way for other black artists who were added to the playlist. The other act who was put in high rotation in the wake of Billie Jean was Prince. Little Red Corvette was put into overdrive on MTV and Prince blew the minds of teenagers across America — especially in smaller towns. Jackson and Prince had an intense rivalry. In the MTV era their extravagant videos were seen as a way for them to one-up each other. Jackson dominated the pop world with Thriller, so Prince replied with Purple Rain. It was perfect for MTV because the videos helped define the channel as it continued to revolutionise the music industry and become a dominant force in pop culture.
15. The holy trio of MTV
Jackson and Prince became the first big stars of MTV in the 80s but a third was about to arrive: Madonna. The popstar’s debut album failed to become a hit and Madonna only managed to make an impression in the dance club scene. One of the places to embrace Madonna from the outset was Australia, thanks to the work of Molly Meldrum on Countdown to promote her as the next big thing.
Madonna released her second album, Like A Virgin, along with a salacious music video that immediately went into high rotation on MTV. Albums sales rocketed and the title track dominated the charts. Madonna embodied everything that MTV was looking for as it moved away from its album-orientated rock format and into the pop megastar era.
16. 1984: MTV reaches its apex
The music channel was no longer considered a fad in 1984. It was in nearly every American home, record companies (and advertisers) were spending millions on music videos, and everything that was cool in the 80s could be sourced back to MTV as a pop cultural phenomenon. To celebrate their dominance, MTV hosted its first awards show: The Video Music Awards (VMAs). Dan Aykroyd and Bette Midler hosted the event at Radio City Music Hall, New York City. Madonna made everyone forget who actually won an award that year with her performance of Like A Virgin where she appeared on stage atop a giant wedding cake in a wedding dress. The performance was punctuated by Madonna’s odd dance moves that morphed into a lot of thriving and humping. Again, it led to more album sales for Madonna and MTV’s stature grew.
17. Bruce Springsteen couldn’t resist
Springsteen was vocal about his resistance to the music video revolution insisting the music needed to remain the focus. Springsteen was a big name but he didn’t want to make flashy music videos for the MTV audience despite the instance of his record label. Born in the U.S.A was set for release in 1984, at the peak of MTV’s powers, so there had to be music videos. Springsteen compromised by agreeing to make them on his own terms by hiring filmmaker, Brian De Palma, to shoot an ‘in concert’ video for the first single, Dancing in the Dark. The idea was to capture the experience of a Springsteen show. The video ended with Springsteen pulling a girl on stage to dance with and the actress picked for the part was a then unknown Courtney Cox. Once Dancing in the Dark hit MTV it became one of the most played videos of 1984 and Born in the U.S.A became Springsteen’s highest selling album. The Boss, in his own way, became a megastar thanks to MTV.
18. Can’t get on MTV? Write a song about it
Dire Straits weren’t big fans of MTV but lead singer, Mark Knopfler, was inspired to write Money for Nothing after witnessing a guy commenting on what he saw on a row of televisions playing MTV in a store. The opening line, ‘I want my MTV’, was sung by Sting and when it got to MTV they loved it so much they asked if there was a video for it. Dire Strait’s record company had nothing and Knopfler was known to be prickly about making music videos. A director pitched the idea of a music video using computer animations intercut with the band playing. Knopfler hated the idea, but reluctantly agreed and the final video would be one of the first to use computer-animated human characters. Money for Nothing dominated the charts in 1985 and broke Dire Straits in America. When MTV launched in Europe in 1987, Money for Nothing was the first video played.
19. MTV for Sale
In 1985, MTV put a dollar figure on its worth: $667.5 million. That’s what Viacom International paid Warner Communications and Warner-Amex Cable for full ownership of the music channel. The sale outed MTV as a corporate entity, a contradiction to the rebellious nature of the channel. Many MTV employees saw the change in ownership as the end of an era.
20. Whitney Houston breaks out
Houston blasted open the doors to a whole generation of R&B pop divas when How Will I Know hit MTV in 1985. The veterans like Diana Ross, Donna Summer, Aretha Franklin, Chaka Khan and Dionne Warwick didn’t get played on MTV. Tina Turner's comeback helped a little but there wasn’t much from the new generation of pop-R&B singers until Houston arrived.
21. Thank MTV for Pauly Shore
Shore had being doing stand-up comedy since the age of 17, but his big break came when he was hired as am MTV VJ in 1989. He worked as a VJ from ’89 to 1994 and left to pursue a film career. The 90s was a crazy time.
22. Guns N’ Roses were saved at 4am in the morning
Appetite for Destruction was considered a flop after it only sold 200,000 copies in the months after its release in 1987. Guns N’ Roses’ record label, Geffen Records, had an A&R rep, Tom Zutaut, who was being told by his bosses to pull the plug on the band. Zutaut defied the orders of his managers and stormed into David Geffen’s office to make a plea to save the band’s career. Geffen asked Zutaut what he could do to turn around their fate. Zutaut asked if Geffen could get MTV to play the video for Welcome to the Jungle. Geffen called in a few favours and granted Zutaut’s wish, but the catch was MTV would only play it once, at 4am, on a Sunday night. As soon as the video finished playing, the MTV switchboard was flooded with 10,000 phone calls that melted the system. The following day Welcome to the Jungle was added to the MTV playlist and the channel made a commitment to play all the band’s videos. Sales of Appetite for Destruction began to double overnight and Guns N’ Roses became one of the biggest bands in the world.
23. The origins of the King of Pop
Ever wondered how Michael Jackson got the nickname, The King of Pop? He did it himself.
Jackson sent a memo to MTV in 1991 demanding all VJs refer to him as ‘The King of Pop’. Jackson claimed the network owed him a debt of gratitude for his role in helping to build the music channel’s reputation, but it also served as an apology for the days they refused to play his music videos. MTV VJs were required to call Jackson The King of Pop at least twice a week in the lead up to the release of his new song Black or White.
Record executives claim Jackson called them one day asking why he didn’t have a nickname like The Boss or The King. They told him Springsteen was The Boss and Elvis was The King. Jackson hired a publicist without notifying his record label and a press release was issued anointing him as The King of Pop.
24. The Jon Stewart Show
Yes, THAT Jon Stewart. The former Daily Show host got his start on MTV by hosting the channel’s first talk show in 1993. It was the second-highest rating show behind Beavis and Butthead. The show lasted just two years until its cancellation in 1995.
25. Get out the plaid
In 1991, MTV played the video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and a gigantic shift happened in the music industry toward grunge. The rise of alternative rock was totally in opposition to what MTV stood for in the early 90s, so they underwent another identity crisis.
MTV flooded their playlist with videos from Stone Temple Pilots, Rage Against the Machine, Marilyn Manson, Pearl Jam, Tool, Beck, Radiohead, and The Smashing Pumpkins. These bands also paved the way for a second wave of auteur music video directors such as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Samuel Bayer, Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer and F. Gary Gray. A bulk of these filmmakers would go on to have successful careers making films.
26. Rock the vote
MTV is credited as having an influence on the 1992 Presidential Election by getting more young people interested in voting for the first time. Candidate Bill Clinton appeared on a show titled ‘Choose or Lose: Facing the Future with Bill Clinton’. It’s where Clinton was asked the famous question about whether he ‘inhaled’ while smoking weed in his college days. A majority of the youth vote that contributed to Clinton’s election is attributed to MTV.
27. Making the music video obsolete
The great irony of MTV is that it created a 24-hour music video channel and then killed it. Between 1995 and 2000, MTV played 35 per cent less music videos. MTV began to invest in reality television shows, which it had innovated with one of the first, The Real World. Music videos no longer became the lifeblood of MTV. As of December 5, 2016, MTV no longer airs any music video blocks.
28. The bubble bursts
Post-2000, MTV struggled. Its ratings had been said to be failing systematically, as younger viewers increasingly shift towards digital media. 80 per cent of American households still get MTV but not many people are watching. MTV recently announced the launch of MTV Classic, a channel dedicate the glory days of broadcaster to celebrate its 35th birthday.
Reminisce about the 1980s with the continuing series The Eighties, every Wednesday night on SBS at 8:30pm. The Eighties is also streaming on SBS On Demand: