Dateline- 1st August 1981
MTV (originally an initialism of Music Television) is an American pay television channel owned by Viacom Media Networks (a division of Viacom) and headquartered in New York City. Launched on August 1, 1981 the channel originally aired music videos as guided by television personalities known as “video jockeys” (VJs). At first, MTV’s main target demographic was young adults, but today, it is primarily teenagers, particularly high school and college students.
Since its inception, MTV has toned down its music video programming significantly, and its programming now consists mainly of original reality, comedy and drama programming and some off-network syndicated programs and films, with limited music video programming in off-peak time periods.
MTV had struggled with the secular decline of music-related subscription-based media. Its ratings had been said to be failing systematically, as younger viewers increasingly shift towards other media platforms, with yearly ratings drops as high as 29%; thus there was doubt of the lasting relevance of MTV towards young audiences.
In April 2016, then-appointed MTV president Sean Atkins announced plans to restore music programming to the channel. Under current MTV president Chris McCarthy, reality programming has once again become prominent.
MTV has spawned numerous sister channels in the U.S. and affiliated channels internationally, some of which have gone independent, with approximately 90.6 million American households in the United States receiving the channel as of January 2016.
The original purpose of MTV was to be “music television”, playing music videos 24 hours a day and seven days a week, guided by on-air personalities known as VJs, or video jockeys. The original slogans of the channel were “You’ll never look at music the same way again”, and “On cable. In stereo.”
MTV’s earliest format was modeled after AOR (album-oriented rock) radio; MTV would transition to mimic a full Top 40 station in 1984. Fresh-faced young men and women were hired to host the channel’s programming and to introduce music videos that were being played. The term VJ was coined, which was a play on the initialism DJ (disc jockey). Many VJs eventually became celebrities in their own right. The original five MTV VJs in 1981 were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson and Martha Quinn.
The VJs would record intro and outro voiceovers before broadcast, along with music news, interviews, concert dates and promotions. These segments would appear to air live and debut across the MTV program schedule 24 hours a day and seven days a week, although the segments themselves were pre-taped within a regular work week at MTV’s studios.
The early music videos that made up the bulk of MTV’s programming in the 1980s were promotional videos (or “promos”, a term that originated in the United Kingdom) that record companies had commissioned for international use or concert clips from any available sources.
Rock bands and performers of the 1980s who had airplay on MTV ranged from new wave to hard rock or heavy metal bands such as Adam Ant, Bryan Adams, The Pretenders, Blondie, Eurythmics, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Culture Club, Mötley Crüe, Split Enz, Prince, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, RATT, Def Leppard, The Police, and The Cars. The channel also rotated the music videos of “Weird Al” Yankovic, who made a career out of parodying other artists’ videos. MTV also aired several specials by “Weird Al” in the 1980s and 1990s under the title Al TV.
MTV also played classic rock acts from the 1980s and earlier decades, including David Bowie, Dire Straits (whose 1985 song and video “Money for Nothing” both referenced MTV and also included the slogan “I want my MTV” in its lyrics), Journey, Rush, Linda Ronstadt, Genesis, Billy Squier, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, The Moody Blues, John Mellencamp, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Billy Joel, Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart, The Who, and ZZ Top; newly solo acts such as Peter Gabriel, Robert Plant, Phil Collins, Paul McCartney, David Lee Roth, and Pete Townshend; supergroup acts such as Asia, The Power Station, Yes, The Firm, and Traveling Wilburys, as well as forgotten acts such as Michael Stanley Band, Shoes, Blotto, Ph.D., Rockpile, Bootcamp, Silicon Teens and Taxxi. The hard rock band Kiss publicly appeared without their trademark makeup for the first time on MTV in 1983. The first country-music video aired on MTV was “Angel of the Morning” by Juice Newton, which first aired on MTV’s premiere date. (Newton’s video was the third video by a solo female artist to air on MTV, after Pat Benatar and Carly Simon.)
During the early days of the channel, MTV would occasionally let other stars take over the channel within an hour as “guest VJs”. These guests included musicians such as Adam Ant, Billy Idol, Phil Collins, Simon LeBon, and Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran, Tina Turner; and comedians such as Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Dan Aykroyd, and Steven Wright; as they chose their favorite music videos.
In addition to bringing lesser-known artists into view, MTV was instrumental in adding to the booming eighties dance wave. Videos’ budgets increased, and artists began to add fully choreographed dance sections. Michael Jackson‘s music became synonymous with dance. In addition to learning the lyrics, fans also learned his choreography so they could dance along. Madonna capitalized on dance in her videos, using classically trained jazz and break-dancers. Along with extensive costuming and make-up, Duran Duran used tribal elements, pulled from Dunham technique, in “The Wild Boys“, and Kate Bush used a modern dance duet in “Running Up That Hill“. MTV brought more than music into public view, it added to the ever-growing resurgence of dance in the early 1980s that has carried through to today.
In 1984, more record companies and artists began making video clips for their music than in the past, realizing the popularity of MTV and the growing medium. In keeping with the influx of videos, MTV announced changes to its playlists in the November 3, 1984, issue of Billboard magazine, that would take effect the following week. The playlist categories would be expanded to seven, from three (light, medium, heavy); including New, Light, Breakout, Medium, Active, Heavy and Power. This would ensure artists with hit records on the charts would be get the exposure they deserved, with Medium being a home for the established hits still on the climb up to the top 10; and Heavy being a home for the big hits – without the bells and whistles – just the exposure they commanded.
In 1985, MTV spearheaded a safe-sex initiative as a response to the AIDS epidemic that continues to influence sexual health currently. In this light, MTV pushed teens to pay more attention to safe-sex because they were most likely more willing to hear this message from MTV than their parents. This showed that MTV was not always influencing youth negatively. Even though in other aspects, MTV was provocative, they had this campaign to showcase their positive influence on youths and safe sex – a campaign that still is alive today: “Its Your Sex Life“.
During MTV’s first few years on the air, very few black artists were included in rotation on the channel. The select few who were in MTV’s rotation were Michael Jackson, Prince, Eddy Grant, Donna Summer, Joan Armatrading, Musical Youth, and Herbie Hancock. The very first people of color to perform on MTV was the British band The Specials, which featured an integrated line-up of white and black musicians and vocalists. The Specials’ video “Rat Race” was played as the 58th video on the station’s first day of broadcasting.
MTV rejected other black artists’ videos, such as Rick James‘ “Super Freak“, because they did not fit the channel’s carefully selected album-oriented rock format at the time. The exclusion enraged James; he publicly advocated the addition of more black artists’ videos on the channel. Rock legend David Bowie also questioned MTV’s lack of black artists during an on-air interview with VJ Mark Goodman in 1983. MTV’s original head of talent and acquisition, Carolyn B. Baker, who was black, had questioned why the definition of music had to be so narrow, as had a few others outside the network. “The party line at MTV was that we weren’t playing black music because of the ‘research'”, said Baker years later. “But the research was based on ignorance … we were young, we were cutting edge. We didn’t have to be on the cutting edge of racism.” Nevertheless, it was Baker who had personally rejected Rick James’ video for 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.”
The network’s director of music programming, Buzz Brindle, told an interviewer in 2006, “MTV was originally designed to be a rock music channel. It was difficult for MTV to find African American artists whose music fit the channel’s format that leaned toward rock at the outset.” Writers Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum noted that the channel “aired videos by plenty of white artists who didn’t play rock.” Andrew Goodwin later wrote, “[MTV] denied racism, on the grounds that it merely followed the rules of the rock business.” MTV senior executive vice president Les Garland complained decades later, “The worst thing was that ‘racism’ bullshit … there were hardly any videos being made by black artists. Record companies weren’t funding them. They never got charged with racism.” However, critics of that defense pointed out that record companies were not funding videos for black artists because they knew that they would have difficulty persuading MTV to play them.
Before 1983, Michael Jackson also struggled to receive airtime on MTV. To resolve the struggle and finally “break the color barrier”, the president of CBS Records at the time, Walter Yetnikoff, denounced MTV in a strong, profane statement, threatening to take away MTV’s ability to play any of the record label’s music videos. However, Les Garland, then acquisitions head, said he decided to air Jackson’s “Billie Jean” video without pressure from CBS. This was contradicted by CBS head of Business Affairs David Benjamin in Vanity Fair.
According to The Austin Chronicle, Jackson’s video for the song “Billie Jean” was “the video that broke the color barrier, even though the channel itself was responsible for erecting that barrier in the first place.” But change was not immediate. “Billie Jean” was not added to MTV’s “medium rotation” playlist (two to three airings per day) until after it had already reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In the final week of March, it was in “heavy rotation”, one week before the MTV debut of Jackson’s “Beat It” video. Prince’s “Little Red Corvette” joined both videos in heavy rotation at the end of April. At the beginning of June, “Electric Avenue” by Eddy Grant would join “Billie Jean”, which was still in heavy rotation until mid-June. At the end of August, “She Works Hard for the Money” by Donna Summer was in heavy rotation on the channel. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” and Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” would be placed in heavy rotation at the end of October and the beginning of November respectively. In final week of November, Donna Summer’s “Unconditional Love” would be in heavy rotation. When Jackson’s elaborate video for “Thriller” was released late in the year, which raised the ambition bar for what a video could be, the network’s support for it was total; subsequently, more pop and R&B videos were played on MTV.
Regardless of the timeline, many black artists had their videos played in “heavy” rotation the following year (1984). Along with Herbie Hancock, Prince, Donna Summer, other black artists such as Billy Ocean, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Lionel Richie, Ray Parker Jr, Rockwell, The Pointer Sisters, The Jacksons, Sheila E and Deniece Williams all had videos played in heavy rotation on MTV.
Eventually, videos from the emerging genre of rap and hip hop would also begin to enter rotation on MTV. A majority of the rap artists appearing on MTV in the mid-1980s such as Run-DMC, The Fat Boys, Whodini, LL Cool J, and the Beastie Boys were from the East Coast