Watch the First Two Hours of MTV’s Inaugural Broadcast (August 1, 1981)

Not every­one on August 1, 1981 had a VCR at their dis­pos­al, and not every­body stayed up until mid­night. But for­tu­nate­ly at least one per­son did, in order to tape the first two hours of a new cable chan­nel called MTV: Music Tele­vi­sion. Did they know it would be his­toric? MTV cer­tain­ly hoped it would be: they equat­ed the pre­miere of this 24/7 video ver­sion of radio with the moon land­ing. Peo­ple born long after this time might won­der why a MTV Music Video award stat­uette was hon­or­ing Buzz Aldrin. But at the time, it made sense. “Ladies and Gen­tle­men, Rock and Roll.” It was a state­ment: less than three decades after the first rock and roll sin­gle, this genre of music had won—-it had col­o­nized the plan­et. And beyond the plan­et, the next stop: the uni­verse.

It’s fit­ting the execs chose as their first selec­tion The Bug­gles “Video Killed the Radio Star.” Visu­als were not just going to be an adjunct to the music, they were going to become inex­tri­ca­bly linked. Either MTV was pre­scient about the visu­al decade to come or they in fact caused it to hap­pen. Music videos or short films had been around since the inven­tion of sound in the cin­e­ma, but MTV was *all* videos, *all the time*, brought to Amer­i­cans due to the dereg­u­la­tion of the tele­vi­sion indus­try in 1972 and the slow growth of cable chan­nels.

After a Pat Benatar video, the VJs intro­duce themselves—-Mark Good­man, Nina Black­wood, J.J. Jack­son, Alan Hunter, and Martha Quinn (all soon to be house­hold names and crushes)-—and then straight into a block of com­mer­cials: school binders, Super­man II, and Dol­by Noise Reduc­tion. A strange group of adver­tis­ers, to be sure. Good­man returns to ask, blind­ly, “Aren’t those guys the best?” Good­man has no idea what has pre­ced­ed him.

Yes, the first day of MTV was pret­ty rough. In fact, it’s a bit like a DJ who turns up to a gig to find they’ve left most of their records across town. In the first two hours we get two Rod Stew­art songs, two by the Pre­tenders, two by Split Ends, anoth­er Pat Benatar video, two from Styx, and two from the con­cert film for the Peo­ple of Kam­puchea. We also get com­plete­ly obscure videos: PH.D. “Lit­tle Susie’s on the Up”, Robin Lane and the Chart­busters “When Things Go Wrong”, Michael John­son “Bluer Than Blue”. This is D‑list stuff. No won­der MTV pre­miered at mid­night.

From these hum­ble begin­ning the chan­nel would soon find its groove and two years lat­er it would become ubiq­ui­tous in Amer­i­can house­holds.

Peo­ple pre­dict­ed the end of MTV right from the begin­ning. It would be a fad, or it would run out of videos to play. Forty years lat­er, the chan­nel has rebrand­ed itself into obliv­ion. And while music videos still get made-—YouTube’s Vevo megachan­nel is the cur­rent equivalent—-none have the effect that those first two decades had on gen­er­a­tions of view­ers. To para­phrase the Bug­gles, we have seen the play­back and it seems so long ago.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The 120 Min­utes Archive Com­piles Clips & Playlists from 956 Episodes of MTV’s Alter­na­tive Music Show (1986–2013)

Watch David Bowie Take MTV to Task for Fail­ing to Play Music Videos by Black Artists (1983)

Watch Queen’s Drag­tas­tic “I Want to Break Free” Video: It Was More Than Amer­i­ca & MTV Could Han­dle (1984)

Ted Mills is a free­lance writer on the arts who cur­rent­ly hosts the Notes from the Shed pod­cast and is the pro­duc­er of KCR­W’s Curi­ous Coast. You can also fol­low him on Twit­ter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

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  • dano says:

    Michael John­son’s “Bluer Than Blue” was a top twen­ty hit in 1978 (#12). It was most assured­ly not D‑list mate­r­i­al. Was the author of this piece even born before 1981?

  • Ray says:

    D list. 1981? There was no list for music video. Doing some­thing was bet­ter than doing noth­ing. Inno­va­tion and excite­ment that’s the point.

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