In the entertainment business, surviving 35 years is no small feat.
On Aug. 1, 1981, the simply-named MTV, short for Music Television, made its debut as a cable channel with one straightforward purpose: airing music videos. In the three and a half decades since its launch, MTV has evolved—or possibly devolved—into a theatrical, star-studded media empire, attempting to corner not only the music and television markets, but to bottle the culture of an entire generation.
MTV’s first broadcast, kicking off with the now-legendary words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” uttered over footage of the first launch countdown of the space shuttle Columbia, is still a sight to behold.
Even more fascinating was the channel’s choice for the first music video it ever aired: “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by British rock band The Buggles.
“As we watched the launch that night, we were all sobbing,” recalls Martha Quinn, one of the original five VJs—video jockeys—who served as DJs for the channel’s non-stop broadcasts back in its first year. “It was the most emotional night. It was like having a baby being born.”
Perhaps the only thing more fitting than MTV’s decision to air The Buggles’ song was the channel’s original tagline: “You’ll never look at music the same way again.”
It was a promise on which MTV quickly delivered. Within months of the channel’s launch, record stores in America began stocking albums promoted on MTV and not on local radio stations—and the channel’s popularity as a platform of discovery even spurred the Second British Invasion, a wave of new music acts infiltrating the US from overseas. Now, as cable television is overtaken by digital platforms and streaming services, it’s hard not to see a channel dedicated to 24/7 music videos as obsolete; yet back in the day, the channel made history.
(MTV in 2016 is also still very much interested in capitalizing on that nostalgia—with a channel dedicated to the glory of its Nineties programming.)