This day in history, August 1, 1981, just after midnight, MTV launched with “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles and sparked the moment when ‘pictures came and broke your heart.’ The first hour featured videos by the Buggles, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, The Who, Cliff Richard, The Pretenders, Todd Rundgren, Styx, Split Enz, and .38 Special.
Initially, MTV was only available on a new cable television channel broadcasting to households in select parts of New Jersey. Despite this initial small audience, MTV went on to revolutionize the music industry and became an influential source of pop culture and entertainment in the United States and other parts of the world, including Europe, Asia and Latin America. The MTV brand went international 6 years after starting in the United States. The channel first appeared in Britain August 1, 1987, through the launch of MTV Europe.
In MTV’s early days, the programming consisted of basic music videos that were introduced by VJs (video jockeys) and provided for free by record companies. As the record industry recognized MTV’s value as a promotional vehicle, money was invested in making creative, cutting-edge videos. Some directors, including Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Three Kings) and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), worked on music videos before segueing into feature films.
In the 1980s, MTV was instrumental in promoting the careers of performers such as Madonna, Michael Jackson, Prince and Duran Duran, whose videos played in heavy rotation. By the late 1980s, MTV started airing non-video programming, geared toward teenagers and young adults. Its popular reality series The Real World launched in 1992 and was followed by such highly rated shows as The Osbournes, Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, Laguna Beach, My Super Sweet 16 and The Hills. MTV also debuted animated series including Beavis and Butthead and Celebrity Deathmatch, as well as documentaries, news, game shows and public service campaigns on topics ranging from voting rights to safe sex.
MTV developed a reputation for pushing cultural boundaries and taste; the airing of Madonna’s 1989 “Like a Prayer” video is just one famous example. In 1984, the channel launched the MTV Music Video Awards from Radio City Music Hall in New York City with performances by Huey Lewis and the News, Rod Stewart, Madonna, Tina Turner, and ZZ Top. The show also featured the iconic image of Madonna in a wedding gown singing “Like a Virgin.” In 1992 the MTV Movie Awards premiered and were hosted by then SNL funnyman Dennis Miller. Highlights of the evening included Keanu Reeves’ reaction to winning the Most Desirable Male award and William Shatner performing the chorus to the nominated Best Songs.