MTV First 2 Hours
MTV (originally an initialism of Music Television) is an American cable channel officially launched on August 1, 1981. Based in New York City, it serves as the flagship property of the MTV Entertainment Group, part of Paramount Media Networks, a division of Paramount Global.
The channel originally aired music videos and related programming as guided by television personalities known as video jockeys, or VJs. MTV was one of the American cable channels which was available in other countries that became a cult hit across the world and was one of the factors in cable programming’s rise to fame and American corporations overwhelmingly dominating the television economy in the 1990s. In the years since its inception, it significantly toned down its focus on music in favor of original reality programming for teenagers and young adults.
Since the late 2010s, MTV has devoted its programming schedule to select programs, primarily Ridiculousness, which in June 2020 aired “for 113 hours out of the network’s entire 168-hour lineup”.
MTV has spawned numerous sister channels in the United States and affiliated channels internationally, some of which have since gone independent. Approximately 90.6 million households in the US received MTV as of January 2017.
In the 1970s, music television focused on live performances, with shows such as The Midnight Special, In Concert, and The Old Grey Whistle Test. Numerous major musical acts had made music videos to accompany their songs, including the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Queen, but the concept and format had not been widely established.
In 1979, executives at the newly formed Warner-American Express Satellite Entertainment Company felt teenagers were an overlooked and potentially lucrative audience, and hoped to develop a television format to target them. MTV’s original format was created by the executive Robert W. Pittman, later the president and CEO of MTV Networks. He tested the format by producing and hosting a 15-minute show, Album Tracks, on New York City’s WNBC-TV in the late 1970s. Pittman’s boss, Warner executive vice president John Lack, had shepherded PopClips, a TV series created by the former Monkees member Michael Nesmith, whose attention had turned to the music video format in the late 1970s.
On Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time, MTV was launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll”, spoken by John Lack and played over footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown of Columbia (which took place earlier that year) and the launch of Apollo 11. The words were followed by the original MTV theme song, a rock tune composed by Jonathan Elias and John Petersen, playing over the U.S. flag changed to show MTV’s logo changing into different textures and designs. MTV producers Alan Goodman and Fred Seibert used this public domain footage as a concept; Seibert said that they had originally planned to use Neil Armstrong’s “One small step” quote, but lawyers said that Armstrong owned his name and likeness and that he had refused, so the quote was replaced with a beeping sound. A shortened version of the shuttle launch ID ran at the top of every hour in different forms, from MTV’s first day until it was pulled in early 1986 in the wake of the Challenger disaster.
The first music video on MTV, which at the time was only available to homes in New Jersey, was the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”. It was followed by Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run”. Occasionally the screen went black when an employee at MTV inserted a tape into a VCR. MTV’s lower third graphics near the beginnings and ends of videos eventually used the recognizable Kabel typeface for about 25 years; but they varied on MTV’s first day, set in a different typeface, and including details such as the song’s year and record label. MTV’s on-air programming was originally produced from the Teletronics studio facility at West 33rd Street in Manhattan, New York; programming was uplinked to satellite from a facility in Hauppauge, New York that also served as the uplink for sister networks Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel (originally, then-owner Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment had planned to uplink MTV from a facility located at the studios of WIVB-TV in Buffalo, New York, where Nickelodeon and The Movie Channel had been uplinked; said facility was planned to be expanded to handle MTV’s needs, but the deal with WIVB fell apart when Warner-Amex was unable to reach a deal with channel 4’s ownership concerning a long-term lease). MTV later moved studio facilities to Unitel Video’s complex located on 57th Street (ironically located across the street from the CBS Broadcast Center, owned by future corporate sibling CBS) in 1987, remaining until 1995 when MTV chose to begin producing studio content in-house.
As programming chief, Robert W. Pittman recruited and managed a team of co-founders for the launch that included Tom Freston (who succeeded Pittman as CEO of MTV Networks), Fred Seibert and John Sykes. They were joined by Carolyn Baker (original head of talent and acquisition), Marshall Cohen (original head of research), Gail Sparrow (of talent and acquisition), Sue Steinberg (executive producer), Julian Goldberg, Steve Lawrence, Geoff Bolton; studio producers and MTV News writers/associate producers Liz Nealon, Nancy LaPook and Robin Zorn; Steve Casey (creator of the name “MTV” and its first program director), Marcy Brafman, Richard Schenkman, Ronald E. “Buzz” Brindle, and Robert Morton. Kenneth M. Miller is credited as MTV’s first technical director at its New York City-based network operations facility.
Within two months, record stores were selling music local radio stations were not playing, such as Men at Work, Bow Wow Wow and the Human League. MTV also sparked the Second British Invasion, featuring existing videos by British acts who had used the format for several years (for example, on BBC’s Top of the Pops).
MTV targeted an audience of ages 12 to 34. However its self-conducted research showed that over 50% of its audience was 12–24, and that this group watched for an average of 30 minutes to two hours a day. As the PBS series Frontline explored, MTV was a driving force that catapulted music videos to a mainstream audience, turning music videos into an art form as well as a marketing machine that became beneficial to artists.
MTV’s earliest format was modeled after AOR (album-oriented rock) radio. It underwent a transition to emulate a full Top 40 station in 1984. Fresh-faced young people hosted its programming and introduced videos. Many VJs became celebrities in their own right. MTV’s five original VJs in 1981 were Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Alan Hunter, J. J. Jackson and Martha Quinn. Popular New York DJ Meg Griffin was going to be a VJ, but decided against it at the last minute. The VJs were hired to fit certain demographics the channel was trying to obtain: Goodman was the affable everyman; Hunter, the popular jock; Jackson, the hip radio veteran; Blackwood, the bombshell vixen; and Quinn, the girl next door. Due to uncertainty around the channel’s success, the VJs were told not to buy permanent residences and to keep their second jobs.
The VJs recorded intro and outro voiceovers before broadcast, along with music news, interviews, concert dates and promotions. These segments appeared to air live and debut on MTV 24/7, but they were pre-taped within a regular work week at MTV’s studios.
Rock bands and performers of the 1980s who appeared on MTV ranged from new wave to soft rock and heavy metal including Adam Ant, Bryan Adams, Pat Benatar, Blondie, the Cars, Culture Club, Def Leppard, Dire Straits (whose 1985 song and video “Money for Nothing” included the slogan “I want my MTV” in its lyrics), Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Daryl Hall & John Oates, Billy Idol, Michael Jackson, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Mötley Crüe, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, the Police, Prince, Ratt, Ultravox, U2, Van Halen and ZZ Top.
In 1984, more record companies and artists began making clips, realizing the popularity of MTV and the growing medium. To accommodate the influx of videos, MTV announced changes to its playlists in the November 3, 1984, issue of Billboard that took effect the next week. Playlist rotation categories were expanded from three (Light, Medium, Heavy) to seven: New, Light, Breakout, Medium, Active, Heavy and Power. This ensured that artists with chart hits got the exposure they deserved, with Medium being a home for established hits still on the climb up to the top 10; and Heavy a home for the big hits – without the bells and whistles – just the exposure they commanded.
Flashdance (1983) was the first film whose promoters supplied MTV with musical clips to compose promotional videos, which the channel included in its regular rotation.
The channel also rotated the music videos of “Weird Al” Yankovic, who made a career out of parodying other artists’ videos. It also aired several of Yankovic’s specials in the 1980s and 1990s, under the title Al TV.
PSAs and promotion of charitable causes and NFPs were woven into the MTV fabric. In response to the AIDS epidemic, MTV initiated a safe-sex campaign in 1985, believing that many youths would be more open to the message there than from their parents. Its safe-sex campaign continues today as “It’s Your Sex Life”.
Video Music Awards
Main article: MTV Video Music Awards
In 1984, the channel produced its first MTV Video Music Awards show, or VMAs. The first award show, in 1984, was punctuated by a live performance by Madonna of “Like A Virgin”. The statuettes that are handed out at the Video Music Awards are of the MTV moonman, the channel’s original image from its first broadcast in 1981. Presently, the Video Music Awards are MTV’s most watched annual event.
MTV began its annual Spring Break coverage in 1986, setting up temporary operations in Daytona Beach, Florida, for a week in March, broadcasting live eight hours per day. “Spring break is a youth culture event”, MTV’s vice president Doug Herzog said at the time. “We wanted to be part of it for that reason. It makes good sense for us to come down and go live from the center of it, because obviously the people there are the kinds of people who watch MTV.”
The channel later expanded its beach-themed events to the summer, dedicating most of each summer season to broadcasting live from a beach house at different locations away from New York City, eventually leading to channel-wide branding throughout the summer in the 1990s and early 2000s such as Motel California, Summer Share, Isle of MTV, SoCal Summer, Summer in the Keys, and Shore Thing. MTV VJs hosted blocks of music videos, interview artists and bands, and introduced live performances and other programs from the beach house location each summer.
MTV also held week-long music events that took over the presentation of the channel. Examples from the 1990s and 2000s include All Access Week, a week in the summer dedicated to live concerts and festivals; Spankin’ New Music Week, a week in the fall dedicated to brand new music videos; and week-long specials that culminated in a particular live event, such as Wanna be a VJ and the Video Music Awards.
At the end of each year, MTV takes advantage of its home location in New York City to broadcast live coverage on New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Several live music performances are featured alongside interviews with artists and bands that were influential throughout the year. For many years from the 1980s to the 2000s, the channel upheld a tradition of having a band perform a cover song at midnight immediately following the beginning of the new year.
Throughout its history, MTV has covered global benefit concert series live. For most of July 13, 1985, MTV showed the Live Aid concerts, held in London and Philadelphia and organized by Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for famine relief in Ethiopia. While the ABC network showed only selected highlights during primetime, MTV broadcast 16 hours of coverage.
Along with VH1, MTV broadcast the Live 8 concerts, a series of concerts set in the G8 states and South Africa, on July 2, 2005. Live 8 preceded the 31st G8 summit and the 20th anniversary of Live Aid. MTV drew heavy criticism for its coverage of Live 8. The network cut to commercials, VJ commentary, or other performances during performances. Complaints surfaced on the Internet over MTV interrupting the reunion of Pink Floyd. In response, MTV president Van Toffler stated that he wanted to broadcast highlights from every venue of Live 8 on MTV and VH1, and clarified that network hosts talked over performances only in transition to commercials, informative segments or other musical performances. Toffler acknowledged that “MTV should not have placed such a high priority on showing so many acts, at the expense of airing complete sets by key artists.” He also blamed the Pink Floyd interruption on a mandatory cable affiliate break. MTV averaged 1.4 million viewers for its original July 2 broadcast of Live 8. Consequently, MTV and VH1 aired five hours of uninterrupted Live 8 coverage on July 9, with each channel airing other blocks of artists.
1986 brought the departures of three of the five original VJs, as J. J. Jackson moved back to Los Angeles and returned to radio, while Nina Blackwood moved on to pursue new roles in television. Martha Quinn’s contract was not renewed in late 1986 and she departed the network. She was brought back in early 1989 and stayed until 1992. Downtown Julie Brown was hired as the first new VJ as a replacement. In mid-1987, Alan Hunter and Mark Goodman ceased being full-time MTV veejays.
In 1997, MTV introduced its new studios in Times Square. MTV created four shows in the late 1990s that centered on music videos: MTV Live, Total Request, Say What?, and 12 Angry Viewers. A year later, in 1998, MTV merged Total Request and MTV Live into a live daily top 10 countdown show, Total Request Live, which became known as TRL. The original host was Carson Daly. The show included a live studio audience and was filmed in a windowed studio that allowed crowds to look in. According to Nielsen, the average audience for the show was at its highest in 1999 and continued with strong numbers through 2001. The program played the top ten pop, rock, R&B, and hip hop music videos, and featured live interviews with artists and celebrities. In 2003, Carson Daly left MTV and TRL to focus on his late night talk show on NBC. The series came to an end with a special finale episode, Total Finale Live, which aired November 16, 2008, and featured hosts and guests that previously appeared on the show.
From 1998 to 2003, MTV also aired several other music video programs from its studios. These programs included Say What? Karaoke, a game show hosted by Dave Holmes. In the early 2000s MTV aired VJ for a Day, hosted by Ray Munns. MTV also aired Hot Zone, hosted by Ananda Lewis, which featured pop music videos during the midday time period. Other programs at the time included Sucker Free, and BeatSuite.
From 1995 to 2000, MTV played 36.5% fewer music videos. MTV president Van Toffler stated: “Clearly, the novelty of just showing music videos has worn off. It’s required us to reinvent ourselves to a contemporary audience.” The network launched MTV Radio Network in 1995 with Westwood One. Despite targeted efforts to play certain types of music videos in limited rotation, MTV greatly reduced its overall rotation of music videos by the mid-2000s. A 10pm programming block for top shows and specials was created and called the 10 Spot. Dana Fuchs was the promo voice actor and writer for ads promoting these shows. While music videos were featured on MTV up to eight hours per day in 2000, the year 2008 saw an average of just three hours of music videos per day on MTV. It’s been speculated that the rise of social media and websites like YouTube as an outlet for the promotion and viewing of music videos led to this reduction. During this time, MTV hired Nancy Bennett as Senior VP of creative and content development for MTV Networks Music. As the decade progressed, MTV video blocks would be relegated to the early morning hours. During his acceptance speech at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards, Justin Timberlake implored MTV to “play more damn videos!” in response to these changes.
Over the next decade, MTV would engage in channel drift, gradually expanding its programming outside of music videos with programming lightly or heavily related to music. MTV became known for its reality programming, some of which followed the lives of musicians; The Osbournes, a reality show based on the everyday life of Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne and his family premiered in 2002 and would become one of the network’s premiere shows. It also kick-started a musical career for Kelly Osbourne, while Sharon Osbourne went on to host her own self-titled talk show on US television. Production ended on The Osbournes in November 2004. 2007’s A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, chronicling MySpace sensation Tila Tequila’s journey to find a companion, was the subject of criticism due to Tequila’s bisexuality.
MTV would also venture into adult animation, with shows like Celebrity Deathmatch, Undergrads, Clone High, and Daria each becoming cult classics. Simultaneously, MTV spawned the paranormal reality tv genre with the broadcast of MTV’s Fear in 2000.
2009 saw the debut of Jersey Shore, which became a ratings success throughout its run and spawned the “MTV Shores” franchise, but would attract various controversies. With backlash towards what some consider too much superficial content on the network, a 2009 New York Times article also revealed plans to shift MTV’s focus towards more socially conscious media, which the article labels “MTV for the Obama era.” Shortly after Michael Jackson died on June 25, the channel aired several hours of Jackson’s music videos, accompanied by live news specials featuring reactions from MTV personalities and other celebrities. The temporary shift in MTV’s programming culminated the following week with the channel’s live coverage of Jackson’s memorial service. MTV aired similar one-hour live specials with music videos and news updates following the death of Whitney Houston on February 11, 2012, and the death of Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys on May 4, 2012.
In February 2010, MTV would drop the “Music Television” branding. The network would still air video premieres on occasion, through both television and real-time interaction with artists and celebrities on its website. Throughout the decade, music programming on the network would be scaled back. In April 2016, then-appointed MTV president Sean Atkins announced plans to restore music programming to the channel. On April 21, 2016, MTV announced that new Unplugged episodes will begin airing, as well as a new weekly performance series called Wonderland. On that same day, immediately after the death of Prince, MTV interrupted its usual programming to air Prince’s music videos. In July 2017, it was announced that TRL would be returning to the network on October 2, 2017. Throughout the 2010s, it was observed that MTV’s daily schedule came to predominantly consist of film broadcasts and frequent marathons of select original programming, similar to other cable networks. In 2020, Reality Blurred criticized the network for its overreliance on Ridiculousness marathons.
Alongside its unscripted slate, MTV would produce more scripted programming. Such shows included Awkward, an American version of Skins, and a reimagining of Teen Wolf. In June 2012, the network announced the development of a television series based on the Scream franchise. As MTV would pivot back to unscripted programming towards the end of the decade, some of these shows would be moved to other networks.
Chris McCarthy was named president of MTV in 2016. In 2021, McCarthy was named president and CEO of MTV Entertainment Group (which also oversees Comedy Central, Paramount Network, TV Land, CMT, and Smithsonian Channel).
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