The Golden Age of MTV — And Yes, There Was OneIt's hard to remember now, but MTV did once play music videos all day. A new oral history recalls that golden age, and the network's meteoric rise to the top of the music industry.
The Original VJs: MTV launched in 1981 with a small cache of videos by mostly unknown British bands and five VJs, or video jockeys: J.J. Jackson, Nina Blackwood, Mark Goodman, Martha Quinn and Alan Hunter.
Courtesy of MTV Networks
Courtesy of MTV Networks
"Ladies and gentlemen, rock 'n' roll."
MTV went on the air with those words, a minute after midnight on Aug. 1, 1981. The first video was, of course, "Video Killed the Radio Star," by the Buggles.
Few people saw the fledgling network; it was carried by cable operators in Kansas City, but not New York or Los Angeles. But within a couple of years, MTV had grown into a behemoth of the music industry.
Thriller caused a controversy at lily-white MTV. The network came under fire for its lack of black artists, but executives worried that their viewers just wouldn't like Michael Jackson. They changed their tune once the ratings came in.
"They weren't idiots," Tannenbaum says. "Once they saw the ratings go up, they realized that they could program black musicians."
Jackson led to Lionel Richie, Billy Ocean and other black musicians, though leery network executives had to be persuaded all over again when rap became popular.
MTV's impact was immense during the 1980s. It made artists like Madonna and Guns N' Roses into stars. But if you turn on MTV today, you'll have a hard time finding any videos at all. The network began to back away from playing music videos in 1992, the year Marks and Tannenbaum chose to end their book.
"One of the signature things that happened that year was that Bill Clinton was a constant presence on MTV in 1990-91, and he was elected president," Tannenbaum says.
"Once you've helped elect a U.S. president, are you gonna go back to playing Winger videos?" Marks adds.
That year also marked the debut of the first reality show, The Real World, which had a huge impact on the television industry.
"It's very easy to trace the line from The Real World to Snooki," Tannenbaum says. "It's an alcoholic, crooked line all the way there, but MTV quickly realized and learned that narrative television, even reality TV, rated better than music videos."
Other networks jumped on the reality show bandwagon.
"I think The Real World was the last point where MTV could be considered revolutionary," Tannenbaum says.