I Want My MTV!
In 1981 Robert Pittman, a 27-year-old vice president in charge of new programming at Warner-Amex, came up with an idea for Music Television, an all-music channel that would play almost nothing but rock videos. The gimmick: free programming—the videos would be supplied by record companies at no charge. “The explicit aim,” explains one critic, “was to deliver the notoriously difficult-to-reach 14 to 34 demographic segment to the record companies, beer manufacturers, and pimple cream makers.” Based on that appeal, Pittman talked Warner into investing $30 million in the idea. Four years later, Warner-Amex sold MTV to Viacom for $550 million. In 2015, Forbes estimated the brand’s worth was $6.5 billion. Today, it broadcasts in more than 50 different countries.
- Pittman planned to call the channel TV-1, but immediately ran into a problem: “Our legal department found another business with that name. 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?”
- The design for the logo was another fluke. “Originally,” Pittman recalls, “we thought MTV would be three equal-size letters like ABC, NBC and CBS. But…three ‘kids’ in a loft downtown, Manhattan Design, came up with the idea for a big M, with TV spray painted over it. We just cut the paint drips off the TV, and that’s the logo. We paid about $1,000 for one of the decade’s best known logos.”
- MTV originally planned to use astronaut Neil Armstrong’s words, “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” with its now famous “Moon Man” station identification. “But a few days before we launched,” Pittman says, “an executive came flying into my office. We had just received a letter from Armstrong’s lawyer threatening to sue us if we used his client’s voice. We had no time and, worse, no money to redo this on-air ID. So we took his voice off and used the ID with just music. Not at all what we had envisioned, yet, fortunately, it worked fine.”
- MTV went on air at midnight, August 1, 1981. Its first video was the Buggies’ prophetic “Video Killed the Radio Star.”
- The average MTV viewer tunes in for 16 minutes at a time.
- MTV’s VJs have a short shelf life. Once they start looking old, they’re retired.
- Not all of the music channel’s fans are teenagers. One unusual audience: medical offices. Prevention magazine says MTV in the doctor’s office helps relieve women’s tension before medical exams.
- MTV reaches 75% of those households inhabited by people 18 to 34 years old and 85% of the households with one teenager.
- While many countries served by MTV Europe have local programming with their own VJs, most are in English, the global language of rock. In Holland, a Flemish language show was dropped because viewers complained that it wasn’t in English.
It took constant badgering by 25-year-old former intern Ted Demme (nephew of film director Jonathan) to get MTV to air a rap show, “Yo! MTV Raps,” in 1989. He argued that white suburban kids wanted rap. The execs gave him one shot at it. “Yo!” was aired on a Saturday. By Monday the ratings and calls were so impressive that “Yo!” got a daily slot, and quickly became MTV’s top-rated show.
In 1990 MTV first aired “Unplugged,” which went against everything music videos had stood for. Instead of stars lip-synching to prerecorded tracks, “Unplugged” taped them live in front of a studio audience, and forced them to use acoustic instruments, making music and talent the focus. What could have been a gimmick turned into a trend when Paul McCartney released his “Unplugged” appearance as an album, and it became one of his bestselling albums. Two years later, Eric Clapton did the same, which made “Layla” a hit song all over again and earned him Grammy Awards as well as platinum records.