MTV: Music on Television? That’ll Never Work

A frame from the launch of MTV on Aug. 1, 1981.
A frame from the launch of MTV on Aug. 1, 1981.

With the song “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles, MTV went on the air for the first time 35 years ago today.

Here are some things you may not have known about MTV.

MTV billed itself as the first 24-hour music channel, however it was not the first to experiment with music videos.

In 1970, a show called “The Now Explosion” featured promotional clips of musical artists. The show was canceled after one season.

In 1974, a channel called Music Video TV was made available to record stores, and eventually signed with a cable company for home distribution. It went out of business by 1981.

Overseas, music shows like “Top of the Pops” in the UK used videos when artists weren’t available to perform live. Music labels also made videos to send to places where artists would rarely perform, such as New Zealand.

Because of this, by the early 1980s, there was a wealth of videos by European and Australian artists.

MTV went on the air at 12:01 a.m. on a few cable systems in New Jersey.

The opening sequence featured footage of the first space shuttle launch countdown and of the launch of Apollo 11. The  Apollo 11 landing unit was seen on the moon, followed by Buzz Aldrin planting a flag with the MTV logo superimposed.

The shuttle launch footage ran at the top of every hour until it was pulled in 1986 following the Challenger disaster.

“Video Killed the Radio Star,” which had an appropriate title for a first video, was among the many UK imports that would run on MTV in the early years. The song, recorded in 1979 by British New Wave band The Buggles was a No. 1 hit in nine countries, but only reached No. 40 in the US.

Originally, the channel played videos 24 hours a day. To guide viewers between songs, the network hired five hosts known as VJs.

By 1983, MTV had come under criticism for not playing videos featuring black performers. The first video by a black performer on MTV was “Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson later that year.

By this time, record labels were making videos specifically for MTV. Ironically, the network would eventually ban all videos shot on videotape, in favor of higher quality film.

In 1985, an adult-contemporary sister channel, VH1, was introduced.

In the late 1980s, the first non-music video programming was introduced. “MTV News,” “House of Style” and the game show “Remote Control,” were among the first shows to stray from the original mission.

Soon, reality shows and other non-music programming would leave little time for videos on the network. As of today, videos are only shown overnight.

In 2010, the network dropped its official name “Music Television” in favor of the now meaningless abbreviation.

Our question: Name one of the five original VJs.

Today is Armed Forces Day in Lebanon and China, it’s National Day in Benin and Switzerland and Statehood Day in Colorado.

It’s National Girlfriends Day, National Raspberry Cream Pie Day, and Woman Astronomers Day.

It’s the birthday of astronomer Maria Mitchell, who was born in 1818; writer Herman Melville, who was born in 1819; and musician Jerry Garcia, who was born in 1942.

This week in 1981, the top song in the U.S. was “Jessie’s Girl” by Rick Springfield.

The No. 1 movie was “Arthur,” while the novel “Noble House” by James Clavell topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


Weekly question

Name the artists from the following five songs that played on MTV’s first day. Extra credit if you can name the song titles.



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