20 Fascinating Facts About The Launch Of MTV

BrAt_PiKaChU/iStock via Getty Images; MTV Networks, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
BrAt_PiKaChU/iStock via Getty Images; MTV Networks, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons / BrAt_PiKaChU/iStock via Getty Images; MTV Networks, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

Now that almost every single music promo is just a finger click away, it's easy to forget that at the dawn of the music video age, schedule-hopping specialist TV shows like USA's Video Concert Hall and Nickelodeon’s PopClips were largely the only way audiences could access music videos. That all changed with the launch of MTV at 12:01 a.m. on August 1, 1981.

Although the channel has since become synonymous with trashy reality series and cheap clip shows, there was a time when MTV truly did live up to its name. And the idea of seeing the cream of new wave, post-punk, and AOR musicians performing 24/7 was treated by the network with as much reverence as the moon landing. Forty years later, here are 20 little-known facts about MTV's monumental launch.

1. MTV’s co-founder uttered the network’s first words.

“Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” These were the simple but effective first words ever uttered on MTV. And they were delivered against a backdrop of another major launch—the Columbia Space Shuttle from earlier in the year—by one of the network’s key players. Chief operating officer John Lack, who’d previously overseen the similarly pioneering show PopClips, had been pivotal in making the idea of 24/7 music videos a reality. In fact, it was his brainchild. Lack was also the man who announced to the world at the 1979 Billboard Video Music Conference that “video radio” was about to change the game,

2. Neil Armstrong wasn’t on board with being quoted in MTV’s promotional materials.

MTV had planned to accompany its stock footage of the famous Apollo 11 moon landing with Neil Armstrong’s iconic quote, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” And they were banking on the astronaut being too apathetic to deny them permission. In Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum’s exhaustive oral history book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, head honcho Bob Pittman revealed, “We sent a letter to his lawyer: ‘If we don’t hear back from you, we’re going to run this.’” Unfortunately, just days before the station’s launch, they did hear back from Armstrong and in the form of a lawsuit threat, too.

3. MTV nearly wasn’t called MTV.

The MTV Moon Man attends the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey.
The MTV Moon Man attends the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at the Prudential Center on August 26, 2019 in Newark, New Jersey. / Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images

MTV could have avoided all the jokes about music television with no music if the network had been able to stick to its original name. Pittman had wanted to christen the exciting rock and roll revolution as the very unexciting TV-1. In what proved to be a blessing in disguise, his legal team discovered that another unimaginative business had already got there first. Even then, they still took a while to get it right, as Pittman explained in the Los Angeles Times in 1991, “The best we could get was TV-M … and TV-M it was, until our head of music programming said, ‘Don’t you think MTV sounds a little better than TV-M?’”

4. MTV’s logo was nearly different, too.

The creative juices didn’t appear to be flowing in the run-up to MTV’s launch. Alongside the attempt to brand the station the rather dull-sounding TV-1, producers were also thinking of adopting a run-of-the-mill logo akin to the likes of NBC and ABC. It was only when Manhattan Design, a hip New York graphic design collective, came on board that the station started to develop a style in keeping with its youthful spirit. Its large block letter ‘M’ spray-painted with the smaller letters ‘TV’ became one of the decade’s defining pop culture symbols. And it only cost the station a measly $1000!

5. MTV had a questionable casting strategy.

Original MTV VJs Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, and Nina Blackwood celebrate the network's 20th anniversary in 2001.
Original MTV VJs Alan Hunter, J.J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, Mark Goodman, and Nina Blackwood celebrate the network's 20th anniversary in 2001. / Evan Agostini/ImageDirect via Getty Images

It seems fair to say that network executive Pittman wasn’t the most PC of bosses. In fact, his casting strategy would today be considered something of an HR nightmare. In I Want My MTV, Pittman freely admits that he selected the station’s VJs primarily for their appearance: “We need a Black person, we need a girl next door, we need a little sexy siren, we need a boy next door, we need some hunky Italian-looking guy with curly hair.” J.J. Jackson, Martha Quinn, Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, and Mark Goodman were the individuals deemed to have best fitted those five roles.

6. There was a big dispute over the first song played on MTV.

The Buggles’s “Video Killed the Radio Star” seems like a no-brainer to kick off a station playing nonstop music videos. But program director Steve Casey claimed that he faced pushback from other creatives about the network’s first-ever promo. Although it reached number one in the band’s UK homeland, the track only peaked at No. 40 on this side of the Atlantic. And some MTV producers believed that they needed to launch with a bona fide hit. Thankfully, Casey used his persuasive powers (“Nobody’s going to be watching. It’s symbolic.”) and the rest is pop culture history.

7. Most of America couldn’t watch MTV when it initially launched.

Although the birth of MTV is widely regarded as one of the most important pop-culture developments of the 1980s, the majority of Americans didn’t even have the ability to witness it. That's because the moment that The Buggles’s “Video Killed the Radio Star” helped to kickstart the music video revolution could only be seen by New Jersey residents who subscribed to a particular cable operator. It actually took several years before the rest of the country could experience the joys of watching everything from Cliff Richard to Iron Maiden in the same programming block.

8. Rod Stewart was the most-played artist during the early days of MTV.

So everyone knows that The Buggles were the first act to be played on MTV. But what about the launch date’s other milestones? Well, Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” was the first female-fronted promo to air; REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run” was the first bit of concert footage screened, while their track “Keep On Loving You” was the first U.S. Hot 100 chart-topper to hit the station. But the day pretty much belonged to Rod Stewart. Across 11 videos, the gruff-voiced rocker made 16 appearances in the space of 24 hours.

9. Several record companies hated the very idea of MTV.

“If you had said to someone in 1981, ‘Do you want to watch a music video?’ the person would have said, ‘I don't know what you’re talking about,’ because the phrase didn’t actually exist,” Tannenbaum told NPR 30 years after MTV launched. Perhaps little wonder, therefore, that several record companies couldn’t quite grasp how the station would benefit them. Indeed, Polygram and MCA were just a few of the labels who refused to hand over their artists' videos for free. Within a few years, though, they were practically begging the station to play the artists on their roster.

10. MTV only had a small library of music videos.

If you managed to stay awake long enough to watch MTV’s first 24 hours of existence, you’d have experienced several cases of déjà vu. Due to both the resistance of various record companies and the fact that the medium was still in its infancy, the network only had a small library of videos at its disposal—reportedly just 250. Nearly half that tally was showcased on its first day, and many videos were played on multiple occasions. In fact, The Who’s “You Better, You Bet,” April Wine’s “Just Between You and Me,” and Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” were all played five times.

11. MTV’s famous slogan didn’t appear until a year later.

The slogan “I want my MTV” arguably became just as famous as any of the songs the network played in the 1980s. But it only actually emerged a year after the station’s launch. Inspired by a 1950s cereal ad, the line was uttered by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Mick Jagger in a campaign designed to get the youth of America begging their cable providers to add MTV. It was a genius marketing tactic that completely overshadowed the network’s original mottos, “On cable. In stereo,” and “You’ll never look at music the same way again.”

12. There was some (very minor) black representation.

MTV deservedly faced criticism in its early days for an almost complete shutout of Black artists. They were even called out on it by David Bowie in an interview with Goodman, and they only really relented when it became impossible to ignore the juggernaut that was Michael Jackson’s Thriller. There was at least some form of Black representation on its launch day, though. Two of its video artists, The Specials (“Rat Race”) and The Selecter (“Celebrate the Bullet”), featured Black British members in their line-ups. And one of its five VJs, the late J.J. Jackson, had established himself as a rare African-American voice in album-oriented rock broadcasting.

13. MTV dealt with plenty of technical gremlins.

As you’d expect from a fledgling low-budget station only available to certain New Jersey cable subscribers, MTV had to cope with several technical gremlins during its launch. Dead air, interrupted promos, and static were just a few of the troubles that plagued the station on the big day. Pittman recalled, “The VJs would announce, ‘That was Styx,’ right after we’d played REO Speedwagon. They'd say ‘This is The Who,’ and a .38 Special video would begin. Everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.” Pittman could at least take solace from the fact these teething problems were only likely to have been spotted by one man and his dog.

14. MTV’s VJs weren’t broadcasting live.

MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown and Dwezil Zappa appear on the MTV Video Music Awards on September 11, 1987.
MTV VJ Downtown Julie Brown and Dwezil Zappa appear on the MTV Video Music Awards on September 11, 1987. / Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Prepare for your mind to be blown the same way when you first discovered that the majority of Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve wasn’t actually recorded on New Year’s Eve. Yes, although the visible nerves and general lack of polish suggested that MTV’s VJs were introducing videos in real-time, the footage was actually filmed in the network’s loft-type studio before making it to air. This explains why when the technical team accidentally played the wrong song or when a video was interrupted by dead air, the hosts never responded in the manner you would expect,

15. MTV’s VJs got emotional.

Of course, by pre-recording their music video links, the VJs were allowed to watch themselves making history at the same time as thousands of other nocturnal New Jersey cable subscribers. Martha Quinn recalled to Yahoo! how she and her fresh-faced colleagues headed to one of the few nightspots with access to the station, a Fort Lee bar called The Loft, in a rented yellow school bus. And it proved to be a tear-jerking experience: “As we watched the launch that night, we were all sobbing. It was the most emotional night. It was like having a baby being born."

16. MTV and Duran Duran forged a strong alliance.

As one of the first bands to truly embrace the music video format, Duran Duran enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with MTV. In fact, the very first piece of music heard on the station was co-penned by one of their regular collaborators. Played after the debut of the MTV flag, “Man on the Moon” was composed by John Petersen and Jonathan Elias, with the latter going on to produce Duran Duran’s 1988 album Big Thing. He also worked with bassist John Taylor on the 9½ Weeks soundtrack, played synths on their covers LP Thank You, and invited the whole line-up to guest on his own 1989 record, Requiem for the Americas.

17. An MTV VJ dropped out at the last minute.

From fifth Beatle Pete Best to one-time Spice Girl Michelle Stephenson, the history of pop music is littered with names who missed out on becoming a defining pop culture entity at the last minute. But Meg Griffin doesn’t seem to be too regretful about turning down MTV at the eleventh hour. The radio DJ had landed one of the five VJ spots after auditioning with her husband Joe (who awkwardly didn’t get an offer). But after learning that she’d only been hired to fill the “tomboy” role during a highly problematic phone call made by Pittman in the next room, Griffin decided against signing her contract.

18. MTV’s VJs didn't quit their day jobs (at least not right away).

MTV’s original VJ line-up could be forgiven for looking a little tired during the early days of the network. The concept of 24/7 music videos was such an unknown quantity that several video jockeys kept their day jobs just in case the whole venture proved to be an unmitigated flop. Quinn continued to work as a desk clerk at the same college she’d just graduated from, New York University, until it became evident that plenty of Americans wanted their MTV. Hunter, meanwhile, remained a bartender until a full two months after the network launched.

19. Several future stars auditioned to be MTV VJs.

After placing job ads in trade publications The Hollywood Reporter and Variety, MTV producers were bombarded with applications for the newly invented role of video jockey. And several of those who were unsuccessful went on to achieve their fame and fortune elsewhere. Richard Belzer, the comedian/actor best known for his 23-year stint as detective John Munch across various NBC police procedurals, was turned down for a position. So was Carol Leifer, who later picked up Emmy Award nominations for her writing work on Seinfeld, The Larry Sanders Show, and the Academy Awards.

20. Alan Hunter was asked to hide his relationship.

We’ve heard of boy band members having to keep their love lives secret to avoid upsetting their adoring fanbase. But MTV’s inaugural VJs, too? Apparently so. In I Want My MTV, Hunter recalled being told to take off his wedding ring during launch week to keep up the pretense he was still very much attainable. However, another producer wanted the host to adopt a different tactic entirely: start an affair with colleague Quinn in a bid to boost ratings. Although he was a married man, Hunter didn’t appear to have a problem with this suggestion: “I was alive and I was a male,” he said. “Who wouldn’t have lustful thoughts about Martha?”