Culture and Recreation

Radio and Television

When did MTV first air?

Music Television (MTV) made its debut August 1, 1981, when it was made available to 2.1 million cable-subscribing households in the United States. The format was all music, 24 hours a day. Audiences could tune in any time to watch popular rock artists performing hit songs.

The notion of pairing music with video was not without precedent, the most obvious of which is the Beatle’s 1964 critically acclaimed pseudo-documentary, A Hard Day’s Night. What was new was the idea of airing music videos around the clock. MTV was the brainchild of John Lack, vice president of Warner-Amex-Satellite Entertainment, which owned the cable station Nickelodeon. He’d taken interest in the Nickelodeon program Popclips, a music and video show developed by Michael Nesmith, a former member of the pop group the Monkees. Lack thought the format had potential, and soon a young executive, Robert Pittman, just 27 years old, was given charge of the project. MTV was launched with 13 advertisers and a meager library of only 125 videos, all provided by the record labels. But MTV caught on, and by 1984 it had captured an audience of more than 24 million viewers, was showing a profit, and was soon spun off into a separate company by parent company Warner.

The video colossus thrived during the 1980s, helping launch more than a few music careers. However, in the following decade “veejays” (video jockies) had to make way for alternate programming on the music channel in order to keep audiences interested. In addition to the standard video programs (including theme shows such as Yo! MTV Raps), the cable channel broadened its offerings to include specials (MTV Spring Break and MTV Video Music Awards) as well as series such as Real World, Road Rules, and The Osbournes). All of the new programming was aimed at the Generation-X audience—the very group of teens and twenty-somethings who, in the 1990s, couldn’t remember not watching MTV. Even though its audience was estimated to have declined by more than half since its peak, MTV remained a going—and profitable—concern into the 2000s, as advertisers continued to rely on the medium to reach the youth market.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy History Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App