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MTV and the 'day' the music died

MTV, aka Music Television wasn't an immediate success when it launched in 1981, but the 24-7 music network had a good run.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
2 min read

Launched on August 1, 1981, with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," MTV had a huge impact on 1980s pop culture.

Before MTV arrived, music programming was mostly limited to bands playing a song or two on the late-night talk shows or "Saturday Night Live." Amazingly enough, most big cities' cable providers weren't on board for the MTV launch; NYC and LA didn't offer the network until 1982. MTV's "I want my MTV!" ad campaigns helped rectify the situation, but MTV's initial rise was painfully slow. The network went on to showcase new stars like Adam Ant, Eurythmics, Culture Club, The Fixx, Split Enz, Prince, Ultravox, Duran Duran, Van Halen, Bon Jovi, Ratt, Def Leppard, The Police, and The Cars. MTV also changed the perception of established icons like Bruce Springsteen and Aretha Franklin. The quality of the videos was all over the place, from pure garbage to truly inspired works from Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson.

As an audiophile I remember that MTV pioneered stereo (MTS) audio on television, even before the audience had TVs that could decode the stereo signals! I bought a JVC VCR with a MTS tuner so I could hear MTV in stereo.

I spoke with ex-MTV VJ Adam Curry to get an insider's point of view about the programming changeover from 24-7 music to reality TV and he said, "It was the best business decision they ever made." Curry explained that during his stint, starting in 1987 the network's ratings were never that great. So even in the best of times, music never pulled big numbers, but MTV's very first trivia game show, "Remote Control," did really well. It went on to do "The Real World" in 1992, which was the first unscripted reality show. That, and the others that followed saved MTV, and doomed 24-7 music programming.

I can't blame MTV for abandoning music; its job was to deliver ratings and make money, and the audience for music, even before YouTube, was never all that big. Curry said there was a community vibe among the VJs, and I think the on-air personalities were a big part of MTV's charm, not so different than radio DJs that turned their listeners onto the best new tunes. YouTube is no replacement for that. Curry reminded me that MTV is currently a $4 billion-a-year business, so it must be doing something right.

Adam Curry Micky Hoogendijk

Nowadays, MTV shows like "Nick Cannon Wild 'N Out " and "America's Best Dance Crew" are the top-rated shows.

If you're too young to remember MTV's glory days, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's "I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution" book will bring you up to speed.

Would you like to see more music programming on MTV, or does YouTube cover that need? Then again, couldn't the same be said for a lot of what's on TV? Why watch shows at all? You can see their best bits on YouTube. Tell us what you think in the comments section.