History of MTV


Before music videos took up residence on Youtube, there was a time when they ruled the TV landscape and that’s all thanks to MTV. It was a music television station that played music videos that were presented by VJ’s or video jockeys. MTV changed the way we listened and looked at music and it led to some of the most significant moments in the music industry. The story of how MTV started is pretty amazing that’s why in this article, we are going to find out how MTV changed the landscape of pop culture and the music industry.

Before MTV

Before MTV aired, there were several concepts for music video-based television channel which existed since the early 1960s. In fact, the legendary band The Beatles made music videos to promote their records in the mid-1960s. During that time, author, classical guitarist, writer, and comedian Mason Williams pitched an idea to CBS for a television program that would present “video-radio”. This said program would have disc jockeys play avant-garde artworks that will go with the music but CBS did not like that idea.

During the 1970s, Bob Whitney, a Philadelphia based DJ created the television series entitled “The Now Explosion.” It was filmed in Atlanta broadcasted in syndication to other TV stations across the United States. The TV show featured promotional clips from different artists but unfortunately, the TV show got canceled in 1971. However, there were several similar programs in other countries such as United Kingdom’s “Top of the Pops” which aired music videos of the artist if they are not able to perform it live and Australia’s “Countdown” which is pretty much the same thing. Back in those days, pop culture had really started to spread all over the world but music videos weren’t that popular yet. That’s why seeing your favorite artist or band during that time is kind of equal to watching their live performance.

The Birth of MTV

Music Television or MTV was a channel that was created by Viacom Media Networks and it was launched on August 1, 1981. The idea of creating specialty channels such as MTV came from a division of Warner Communications called Warner Cable. They launched the first two-way interactive cable TV system in Columbus, Ohio and the named it QUBE which was able to offer a handful of specialty channels in 1977. One of the specialty channels was entitled “Sight on Sound” and it was a music channel that showed clips from different concerts and other shows that were music oriented. Generally speaking, Sight on Sound didn’t show any music videos and it was more of a channel that was made to showcase different music in various formats.

As we mentioned earlier, QUBE was an interactive cable TV system and it enabled viewers to engage by voting on things like their favorite albums, songs, and artists. During that time, the voting was done through telephones and mail.

Until one day a man named Robert V. Pittman (one of the guys who created MTV and a successful businessman) saw that QUBE’s concept had the potential to be taken in a more innovative direction. Pittman came up with that idea when he was hosting a 15-minute show called “Album Tracks” during the late ‘70s. This idea plus the interactive format that Warner Cable used in QUBE helped set the stage for the birth of MTV.

Robert Pittman along with Les Garland, John Sykes, and Tom Freston finished putting up together the concept of the channel. They thought that they would air video clips or music videos of the current popular songs and combine the airplay of the few available music videos 24 hours a day. And on August 1, 1981, they decided to launch MTV with a debut phrase that goes “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” that was said by John Lack. The said phrase was played over a footage of the countdown to the launch of the space shuttle Columbia. After that, it was followed by the original theme song of MTV while an image of the American Flag on the moon was changed into the MTV logo.

The very first music video that was played on MTV was the ‘80s classic hit song “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles. However, MTV only aired their debut in New Jersey that’s why only the people from the Garden state got to witness the very first music video that was played on American television.

MTV As We Know It

The concept of airing videos 24/7 was never done before and unfortunately back in the 1980s, MTV did not have the high-technology computers and gadgets we have today. That’s why the audience would often see a completely black screen and this is because an employee would have to manually switch tapes into the VCR. They also repeated a lot of music videos and songs because, during those times, MTV only had a few hundred music videos in their system. They also put in the stock NASA footage every twenty past the hour for their “Local avail.” The “local avail” period means that local cable companies could put in their advertising. But unfortunately, no one wanted to buy advertising airtime on their channel that’s why MTV was stuck having to fill the empty time slot with the stock NASA footage on which a lot of people thought they were actual videos.

Even if MTV was only aired in certain markets and not attracting a lot of advertisers, they still managed to eventually climb the ladder of success. Local records stores where MTV was aired started to sell more records of the songs that weren’t being played on the radio but was aired on MTV. Some of the early bands and artists included Bow Wow Wow, Men at Work, and The Human League. This all happened in just two months after MTV was launched and Pittman along with his guys were already starting to see something unexpected. This was because their original target audience for MTV were the ages 12-34 years old but after doing some research, they found out that almost fifty percent of their audience was actually between the ages 12-24 years old. They also discovered that their audience’s age range watched MTV at least 30 to 2 hours per day. Since then, MTV had been some kind of breeding ground of the 80s music scene because they offer a whole new experience in listening to music and they reached a lot more audience.

During the mid-1990s, MTV’s play of music videos started to drop big time and between 1995-2000 they played 36.5 percent less music videos. MTV decided to cut down airing them 8 hours a day to three hours a day. This was because MTV focused on producing reality TV shows such as The Osbournes, Singled Out, Punk’d, and Pimp My Ride.

Come the 2010s, MTV eventually stopped playing music videos because of online streaming platforms such as Facebook and Youtube where everything could be accessed instantly and on demand. No one was going to sit and watch TV all day hoping the latest music video of their favorite artist may be played. That’s why today, MTV focuses on producing reality TV shows and other series that will keep the audience hooked and entertained.

MTV’s Original VJs

Back in the 1980s, everyone knew what a DJ was and what he does but what in the world was a VJ? At first, MTV wanted to feature well-known and established bands but when they found out that most of their audience was younger they decided to move into the popular music and top 40 based music. But the problem was most of the songs that belonged in the top 40 hit chart was performed by newly established bands and artists. That’s why MTV decided to use younger presenters to give a little introduction about the music videos and their artists. And from then on, the term “video jockey” was coined. Some of the first MTV VJs were Alan Hunter, J.J Jackson, Mark Goodman, Nina Blackwood, and Martha Quinn.

The VJs gained some airtime and eventually became celebrities in their own right. Sometimes, MTV would invite celebrity “Guest VJs” like Phil Collins, Adam Ant, Billy Idol, and Simon LeBon to introduce the music videos.

MTV’s Iconic Logo

Ever since MTV was launched, its logo has seen a total of three changes. The very first MTV logo was designed in 1980 by Manhattan Design and it featured a somewhat abstract design of the letters “MTV” and it was even complete with a gloved hand that was holding a musical note. However, this logo only lasted for a year and it was never used when MTV was finally launched. In 1981, MTV used a logo design that looked like the one we are now familiar with. This is the logo with the huge letter “M” and a smaller “TV” that was placed at the bottom right corner of the letter “M” and the word “Music Television” is written beneath. This logo design was used by MTV until 2010 when they transitioned from playing music videos to producing reality TV shows and series. Their name stayed the same and they just removed the words “Music Television” beneath the “MTV” logo.

Since MTV was launched, the channel proved to be a cultural institution and the backbone of the 80s music scene and pop culture. During those days, MTV was the place for artists to really express and represent themselves beyond music. MTV helped create a way where artists could interact with their fans and create a brand new art form. MTV also showed us that a good music video can make up for a terrible song and a great song could become greater with the right and well-made music video.  

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