Forty years ago on Sunday MTV launched with the countdown to Space Shuttle Columbia taking off, followed by the words: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.”
Only 800,000 households in New Jersey could get it to start with and there were frequent blackouts.
Few thought it would succeed but it revolutionised pop and sent into orbit the careers of stars like Madonna and Michael Jackson.
Co-founder Fred Seibert said of the launch on cable: “It is hard to believe now but it was like the internet – completely new technology.
“The average home in America had just two channels at the time. We understood we were on the precipice of a giant cultural change.”
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And British acts played a key part in its success. The opening video was the aptly named Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. The playlist also included The Who, Rod Stewart and Cliff Richard.
But it was almost over for the channel before 1981 was out.
It burned through its start-up cash and most of the young staff had little or no TV experience, working out of cramped rooms above a deli in midtown Manhattan.
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One of the founders, Tom Freston, who would go on to become the boss of US media giant Viacom, says: “We were lean and mean and didn’t know what the hell we were doing. My first office was a soda storeroom.”
Once again it was a Brit who helped save the slapdash station.
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Ads featuring Mick Jagger languidly saying “I want my MTV” – a phrase coined by Freston – catapulted the network to overnight success. Brit artists like Duran Duran, Culture Club and Adam Ant became household names in America.
MTV’s launch coincided with the rise of big-budget pop videos.
But there was criticism over its failure to feature black artists and Walter Yetnikoff, president of CBS Records, reportedly had to threaten to remove all other CBS videos before the network agreed to air Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean in 1983.
Later that year the channel screened the full 14-minute version of Thriller for the first time and repeated it every hour with a countdown, rapidly making it the most successful video in MTV history.
Clips from Flashdance were MTV’s first promotional videos in 1983, establishing the channel as a crucial marketing tool for movies. Six years on from the US launch, MTV Europe was broadcast for the first time on August 1, 1987, and it went on to launch the careers of presenters Davina McCall, Cat Deeley, Edith Bowman and Laura Whitmore.
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The first video was Money For Nothing by Dire Straits, which appropriately starts with a clip of Sting singing: “I want my MTV”.
MTV’s annual awards would spawn a cultural behemoth of its own and more infamous TV moments. Originally conceived as an alternative to the Grammys, the Moonman statue has become a coveted gong, with Beyoncé holding the title for the most at 28.
The first show in 1984 was hosted by Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd, and included a live performance of Like A Virgin with Madonna writhing around the stage suggestively in a giant wedding dress.
Madonna would cause more headlines when she joined wedding dress-clad Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera on stage in 2003 as they paid tribute to her – and kissed them. MTV launched its own annual movie awards in 1992, while acoustic music show MTV Unplugged first aired in 1989.
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Many acts released the sessions as albums, with Eric Clapton’s Unplugged from 1992 shifting 26 million copies – the best-selling live album of all time.
By the early 1990s, the station added animation to its line-up.
Its first programme was the BBC co-production Liquid Television, later going on to launch Beavis and Butthead, and Celebrity Deathmatch.
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It was during the 1990s that MTV also debuted what would go on to truly transform television – reality shows Real World and Road Rules.
These would be followed by Punk’d and Pimp My Ride, with The Osbournes – based on the life of Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne and his family – premiering in 2002.
MTV’s most-watched show was Jersey Shore, which inspired eight international spin-offs, including the UK’s Geordie Shore.
With the rise of streaming and YouTube, MTV’s future looks uncertain, despite its ability to innovate. In recent years, it launched a talk show with Alexa Chung and scripted shows like Skins and Teen Wolf.
Freston has admitted that “it breaks my heart” to look at the current state of the station.
But whatever the future holds, ladies and gentlemen, it’s still wanted by fans the world over.
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