The year that video killed radio’s star

THE immortal words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ‘n’ roll” launched music television (MTV) thirty years ago this summer on August 1, 1981.

Video Killed the Radio Star by Buggles was the first video to be played. As the ad said, we would never look at music in the same way again. And they were kind of right.

MTV became the world’s first global video music channel. It gave its name to a new term, ’the MTV generation’. It transformed the pop video format. What started off in a downtown hotel room in New York is still going thirty years later. The model might have changed slightly but the brand is still there. It introduced the words Video Jockey (VJ) into the lexicon of popular culture. It’s not just MTV. It’s MTV Ukraine or MTV Africa. There was a time when it did exactly what is said on the tin. Now, reality rules.

The key target in the early days was access to cable and it eventually became the first big cable television success. The winning formula of low cost programming with videos played back-to-back struck a chord with the youth of America. It was only when they had their second launch in LA and New York in 1983 that it reached a wider audience. Such was the power of the station that heavy rotation of a particular video could make or break a band. It wasn’t long before the execs at the record companies copped onto this new marketing tool. Top class directors and expensive sets were all the rage in the ‘80s. Some video directors saw the video as an art form and in doing so created some truly ground-breaking videos.

MTV had a policy of not playing many videos by black artists. It took several months before they relented and showed “Billy Jean” under much pressure from Michael Jackson’s record company, CBS. Once it aired, it was in heavy rotation and this paved the way for other black artists to break through with MTV.

David Mamet directed the mind-boggling, robotic “Rock It” video for Herbie Hancock. Again Mamet had to minimise any visuals of Hancock in the video to give it a better chance of being aired. That video went on to win four awards at the annual MTV Video Awards the following year.

Tom Freston and John Lack were the men behind MTV. They began humbly enough with a staff of just five and were equipped with just two phone lines and a call waiting system. Their biggest obstacle was that television cable operators wouldn’t carry the station. Luckily for MTV, Tom was head of marketing and was responsible for the pioneering “I Want My MTV” ad campaign which was crucial in the spread of the cable channel. Freston cleverly used television advertising to persuade the cable operators to carry the station. In a stroke of genius he got pop stars like Madonna, Billy Idol and David Bowie to front these ad campaigns urging viewers to call to their local cable company with the famous phrase: “I Want my MTV”.

The relentless pressure on the cable companies from viewers saw many of them sign up to the cable channel. Phrases like “Turn it on. Leave it on. I want my MTV” became the rallying call of American youth. A dedicated MTV channel for Europe was set up in 1987 which finally bought the riches of the channel to our shores.

Their specialist music shows like “Headbangers Ball”, “120minutes” and “MTV Unplugged” tapped into an emerging diverse market. Two metal-loving, vulgar, misanthropes became the cult stars of a new programme. Beavis & Butthead brought their sardonic humour even to the big screen, such was their success. In 1992 Tom Freston came up with another idea for a show about a group of young people living together. “The Real World” was born. This was year zero for reality shows and it was the progenitor of many reality shows on air today. “Cribs” and “Pimp my Ride” were early versions of the genre. We have now moved on to “Jersey Shore” and “Too Young to be a Mum”.

And did I mention “Geordie Shore”? These scripted shows are proving to be a total ratings winner. If you want to watch music videos you have to switch to sister channels MTV Music and MTV Hits.

This change in direction is evident with the new re-branding. The famous tag of “music television” has now been boldly dropped off the corporate logo after thirty years.

They have also replaced it with “MTV Talent” and pictures of their various reality stars.

MTV here in Ireland was a far off television dream for many of us. However, it all changed in February 1984 when MT-USA, a music video programme began on RTE 2. Sunday afternoons would never be the same again. Out went the homework and in went three hours of the best music videos around. And in case you missed it, there was always the repeat show on Friday night. “Music never looked better” was the show’s tagline and it introduced us to the likes of ZZ Top and Pat Benatar.

Conor McAnally and Vincent Hanley were the brains behind the show and they were commissioned by RTE to produce it. The following year they persuaded Bill Hughes, who worked in RTE at the time, to come on board to produce the series.

Vincent “Fab Vinnie” Hanley presented the show from New York which added a certain glamour to it all. He not only presented, but also acted as a tour guide, showing the viewers the sights and sounds of a sexy New York, along with celebrity and music news.

“It was a crazy, crazy time but wonderful, and getting it on air here in Ireland was a very big deal, it was the first video music show in Europe,” Bill Hughes fondly remembers.

Travel played a big part in the show as all the links were recorded in New York early in the week, and then Bill would fly back and edit the tapes for broadcast on Sunday.

The show was a ratings success and ran for four seasons from 1984 to 1987. To this day people still come up to Bill with fond memories of the show and of Vincent, who sadly died a few months after the last broadcast.

“You wouldn’t believe the amount of people who tell me that their parents told them that they were conceived while watching MT-USA,” Bill laughs.

The show has lived on and Sony records released two MT-USA compilations a few years ago, the first one going double platinum.

Stevie G, Red FM presenter and hip-hop DJ, has some fond memories of watching Yo! MTV Raps in the early days and presenters like Downtown Judy Brown, but he is not a fan anymore.

“MTV hasn’t played music in years and epitomises all that is bad about reality television, when ‘Cribs’ and its material possessions became more important than the music, I was gone,” he said.

Jenny Huston, a DJ with 2FM is also a former fan:

“I still turn it on the odd time to watch the rock chart as its often extremely different to what you hear on daytime radio,” she says. But she’s part of a generation whose new catch-call could easily be ‘I want my MTV (back the way it used to be)’.

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