Just after midnight on August 1, 1981, the brand new Music Television Network came on the air, with a bang. Its opening moments consisted of footage of a rocket launching and an announcer declaring “Ladies and Gentlemen, rock and roll!” A guitar riff played with an image of an American astronaut planting an MTV flag on the moon.
The video that followed was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the English band the Buggles. About 80 videos comprised the first week’s schedule, which was almost the totality of music videos in existence at the time. It turns out that video did just the opposite of killing the radio star.
The network launched on very few cable systems. NYC-based employees gathered early in the morning of August 1 at a northern New Jersey bar, one of the few bars that carried MTV at the time, in order to watch.
In the first years after launch, MTV struggled to get distribution and advertising commitments. Music videos were new and cable companies were hesitant to carry a network devoted to them. Advertisers were reluctant to sponsor programming with such low ratings. Compounding the headwinds, cable was new and unproven in the 1980s.
MTV enlisted the help of George Lois, an icon of the 1960’s advertising creative revolution. He was called on to create a trade campaign aimed at cable operators. In order to win over the skeptics, he first appealed to the music lovers. And his campaign set MTV on a rocket trajectory being a cable powerhouse network by the mid-1980s.
Lois’ slogan was simple: “I Want My MTV!” The execution was too: rockers speaking or sometimes yelling the slogan at the camera. Big name talent such as The Police, Madonna, Pete Townshend, and Billy Idol implored viewers to call their cable companies and demand their MTV. “If you don’t get MTV where you live, call your cable operator, and say I WANT MY MTV!” the spots said. And call they did. Over and over, the spot aired and angry customers called, and yelled, mimicking some of their favorite talent.
In a few months, MTV was available in 80% of cable homes, record companies were urging talent to create music videos, and advertisers saw the network as a must-buy for 12-24 year olds. Additionally, top musicians were calling the network and asking to be in commercials, in part to increase their own record sales.
Billy Idol, Boy George, Cyndi Lauper in one of the Lois spots:
In 1985, Dire Straits released a video for “Money for Nothing” that opened with the band singing “I Want My MTV” while the astronaut planted the MTV flag on the moon.
The New York Times reported last week that MTV is bringing back the signature show “TRL”, Total Request Live, which aired from 1998 to 2008. The original show, which was a mix of music videos, interaction with a studio audience, and appearances from musicians, was, as the Times notes, a throwback to “American Bandstand.” Chris McCarthy, President of MTV — who, it should be noted, was 6 when the network launched – told the NYT that “MTV’s reinvention is coming by harnessing its heritage.”