On Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01 am Eastern Time the music world officially changed forever. It was at this moment that MTV launched with the words "Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll," spoken by John Lack playing over footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown, with the original MTV theme song playing over MTV's ground breaking logo immediately following. The first video to premier on the new 24-hour music channel was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles (I hope the irony is evident here). 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 was not meant for the old folks, it was specifically targeted towards young adults who would not only enjoy the music, but the “clip” that went along with it. What Jack Schneider, John Lack and Bob McGroarty didn’t know when they launched the cable channel was that they would change the music and came and shape culture for generations to come.
Now watched by more than 340 million viewers in 139 countries, MTV has maintained its cultural influence and has been credited with creating icons such as Michael Jackson and Madonna, influencing fashion, spawning movies and televisions shows, and most importantly, saving the music industry. While it has recently been criticized for its blatant lack of music videos, MTV maintains a level of stimulus among teenagers and college students through reality television shows (heard of Jersey Shore?) and its Music Video Awards, held every year (remember when Kanye dissed Taylor Swift?). Although these critiques are valid, it’s important to understand that MTV was a pioneer in culture and is attempting to retain that reputation in a world of YouTube and other easy to access video streaming services. MTV has shaped so much for so long that its symbol alone has become a pop culture facet and it’s hard to imagine a time when the channel did not exist. As someone who grew up with this channel and has seen it transition first hand, I am proud to say I am part of the MTV generation – maybe not so proud of Jersey Shore, but the memes it inspired this year make it worth it.
So how did this culture shock of a channel come to fruition? At the hands of the previously mentioned triumvirate – Jack Schneider, John Lack and Bob McGroarty. It all started when Jac Holzman, senior vice president of Warner communications, realized that “clips” (what they used to call music videos) had a highly attractive feature to them and were solid ways of advertising bands, especially in Europe. It was the success of the video clip for “Rio” by Michael Nesmith that prompted Holzman to bring the idea to his boss who sent him over to Wasec, to the office of John Lack. Lack made the call to Bob McGroarty and the idea for the channel sparked. A call was made to Nesmith to acquire more of these videos which were a series of disparate images that Nesmith believed proceeded from the spirit of the song – after testing these on the Nickelodeon channel and finding success, the boys decided to bring this to the big guns at Warner, David Horowitz and Steve Ross who agreed to the project. The last step was to sell it to the CEO, James Robinson III - he obviously liked the idea. Once the triumvirate had the financial backing they had to reach out to cable operators to carry the channel, to the record companies to acquire the promotional clips to air, and then to the advertising community to fund the new channel (which they presumed would be the only source of income). The last hurdle was to create a name for the channel – with the help of many, they decided on “MTV” which stood for “Music Television.” And the rest is history.
The idea of a 24-hour music channel was not of concern in the 1970s following such events as Vietnam and the Nixon scandal, but thanks to one spark of idea and a whole lot of collaboration, the harbinger of modern pop culture came to light. I specifically appreciate this channel because of my immense love of music, but also can you imagine a life without Snooki or Teen Mom? I know I could never.
Fun fact: the first images shown on MTV were a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, hence the “Moon Man” Award given out at the Music Video Awards.