How the Creation of MTV Changed Pop Culture Forever

James Logie
The story of MTVPhoto by Patrick Tomasso on Unsplash

Depending on your age, you may have never seen a music video on TV.

But there was a time when they ruled the television landscape. Music videos are still important, but they now live on YouTube.

The creation and launch of MTV would change pop culture and forever altered the way music would be marketed and consumed.

How New Zealand Created the Foundations of MTV

Music Television, or MTV, was launched on August 1, 1981, and was a channel created by Viacom Media Networks.

The story, however, starts in 1977 with the possibility of creating specialty channels.

Warner Cable launched the first two-way interactive cable television system in Columbus, Ohio. It was called QUBE, and it could offer several specialty channels.

One specialty channel they had was called “Sight on Sound.” It was a music channel but would show clips from certain concerts and shows.

There weren’t really music videos to speak of, so it was more of a channel to showcase music in various formats.

Since QUBE was interactive, viewers could engage by voting on things like their favorite artists, songs, and albums.

These are archaic times and voting was done by ancient technology such as mail and telephones.

But the concept of a music channel was an intriguing one.

Robert W. Pittman would be the driving force behind MTV. He got the idea when he used to host a 15-minute show called “Album Tracks” in New York in the late 70s.

This idea — and the new interactive format being used by Warner Cable — would set the stage for MTV.

Pittman had a boss instrumental in the history of MTV named John Lack. Lack had tried out a show called “Pop Clips” that was the creation of former Monkee, Mike Nesmith.

Nesmith was inspired by seeing this format work in New Zealand from a show called “Radio In Pictures.”

Radio In Pictures came out in 1976 and was a concept that had been around since the mid-60s.

As pop culture exploded in the 60s, music — primarily from America and the UK — was being spread all over the world.

Music videos did not exist yet, and to see a band on TV meant having to watch a live performance.

Since New Zealand was so far away, it made promoting yourself and your music difficult.

The New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation came up with a solution and started working with the record labels.

They figured it would work best for the labels to supply promotional music clips that they could play on air for no charge.

Their artists would now get extra exposure in a remote — and English-speaking — part of the world without having to make the long trip to get there.

Launching MTV

The concept for MTV was all put together, and the format would be playing these video clips of current songs.

It’s not that music videos didn’t exist, but they were definitely not commonplace. The idea was to combine the airplay of the few available music videos but keep them playing 24 hours a day.

They only had seven months to launch the new concept. They wanted MTV up and running by summer, as this is when most fads begin.

MTV launched at 12:01 a.m. Eastern Time on August 1, 1981. The channel debuted with the phrase “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”

This was spoken by John Lack and was played over footage of the countdown to the launch of the space shuttle Columbia.

This kicked into the original MTV theme song while an image of an American flag on the moon changed to the MTV logo.

And what was the very first video to play after this on MTV? “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the Buggles.

The Early Days at MTV

The concept of playing videos 24/7 was a new one and unfortunately, the technology wasn’t quite there yet.

There would often be periods of complete black on the screen as an employee would have to physically switch tapes into a new machine called a VCR.

There were also a lot of repeats in those early days, as there were only a few hundred music videos in the system.

MTV would also have to put in stock NASA footage at twenty past the hour for “local avail” which is where local cable companies could sell advertising.

Since no one wanted to buy advertising, they were stuck having to fill this empty time slot. Many people would think the NASA footage was the music videos. (The NASA connection is the reason MTV awards use the “Moon Man”.)

Even though MTV was only playing in certain markets — and not attracting a lot of advertisers — it was an early success.

Local record stores in the locations MTV played were selling more records for songs that weren’t being played on the radio.

This was all happening within two months of the launch of MTV, and they noticed something unexpected.

The original target audience for MTV was going to be between 12 and 34 years of age.

After doing some research, they found that over 50% of the audience was actually between 12 and 24 years old.

They also found that this age range watched MTV for an average of 30 minutes to two hours.

The station was still facing challenges but would see some massive growth because of a small island in the North Sea.

The Second British Invasion

Everyone knows about the first British invasion, which obviously includes groups like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

But a second British invasion would happen in this new age of video, primarily because of a British institution: “Top of the Pops.”

Top of the Pops was a British music show on the BBC that started in 1964 and ran all the way until 2006.

It was a British music chart show where popular acts would come on to perform if they were that week’s best-selling artist.

The acts would usually lip-sync their songs and sometimes play to backing tracks to recreate the exact song from the record.

Bands in England became used to going on TV and doing a “live” music video.

There would also be pre-recorded clips of the bands playing their songs. This was key as British bands knew how important appearance was.

They had become experts at presenting their music — and aesthetic — in a short time frame.

North American bands only had to worry about creating a great song, album, and concert experience.

In England, if you were going to be successful, you would have to appear on Top of the Pops and get used to being recorded by cameras.

Kids in Britain who would become musicians were used to this “music video” format from watching it through the 60s and 70s.

By the time it came for them to get in front of the camera, they were ready.

They had already appeared on TV multiple times and knew the importance of production values and appearance.

When MTV launched, bands like Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, the Kinks, and the Culture Club were ready; and embraced this new music television.

Some big American rock bands were having trouble with this new format and didn’t know how to present themselves on video. Image hadn’t been a concern — but now it was crucial.

Financial Problems & Changing Their Marketing Direction

Things had started great, but artists’ record sales were doing better than MTV itself. By the end of the first year, the station lost $50 million.

MTV needed to attract more advertisers and to do this, they needed more viewers.

They had to try to convince labels to put out expensive music videos if they were going to attain a larger audience.

The heads of MTV decided they needed their own marketing campaign to get into more homes and the famous, “I want my MTV” slogan was born.

They centered the marketing around artists saying the now-iconic catchphrase — but they needed a big star to create momentum.

They approached Mick Jagger, who told them “the Rolling Stones don’t do commercials.” The MTV bosses pointed out that the Stones once had a tour sponsored by a perfume company.

Jagger then said that they only do commercials when they’re paid a lot of money.

MTV had nothing to spend, but one cocky executive threw down a dollar bill in front of Jagger and said that was all they could afford.

Jagger loved the confidence and agreed to do the commercial for $1.

With Mick Jagger now saying he wanted his MTV, every artist you can think of came out of the woodwork wanting in too.

When the campaign aired, networks around the country were flooded with calls by people saying “I want my MTV,” the way their music idols were.

This would turn around the fortunes of the station. Revenue rose from $27 million in 1983 to $42 million in 1984. Their subscribers increased 37% and they were now in 25.4 million homes.

A Marketing Campaign Wrapped Into a 3-Minute Video

The rise of this new music television was creating stars overnight, such as Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and Run DMC.

Artists and record labels now could put out a music video that would serve as a “commercial” for the artist and label.

A great video would lead to a boost in album sales, whether the rest of the album was any good or not.

Record sales are much farther down the list of how an artist or label makes money these days, but they still happen.

MTV continues to be instrumental in this as Billboard reports that the 2019 MTV Music Video Awards led to a 74% sales boost for songs performed on the show.

MTV had now become increasingly lucrative because of its appeal to advertisers. In its heydey, MTV was generating $400 million a year ($830 million adjusted for inflation) and appearing in 112 million homes.

The Future of MTV

Heading into the mid-90s, the play of music videos dropped big time. Between 1999 and 2000, MTV played music videos 36.5% less.

Music videos went from being played at least eight hours a day to down to three.

Reality television then changed the direction of MTV with shows like Singled Out, The Osbournes, Punk’d, Pimp My Ride, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, up to the juggernaut that was Jersey Shore.

MTV would be the only shining star of the Viacom network which had seen a 50% drop in ratings in the core 18–49 demographic.

The new unscripted content would be the network’s saving grace as MTV’s revenue increased to $1.2 billion in 2017, which was the first year of growth since 2013.

Thank you, Snooki.

Final Thoughts

MTV would eventually stop playing music videos as with the advancement of YouTube and online sources there was no point.

No one was going to wait around to see something on TV they could access instantly.

MTV changed the way we consumed music and has created many iconic pop culture moments.

The concept of a 24-hour music station seemed like an absurd one, but it’s game-changing ideas like this that helped change the course for an entire industry.

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Personal trainer, podcaster, Amazon best-selling author. Writing about some health, a little marketing, and a whole lot of 1980s.


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