MTV: The (r)evolution & impact between 1981 – 1994

Essay, 2011

9 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Music Television

Music Television, or MTV, a cable television network that allocates most of its broadcasting time to music video clips, has had a great influence on popular culture in general, young people and on the music industry, since its first aired in August 1981. Initially viewed as a promotional channel for the music industry, it rapidly took on a life of its own and was perceived by spectators as an information source on the newest trends in music, fashion and attitude. (Denisoff, 1988)

Goodwin (1992) commented that “the video clips shown on MTV were a visual companion to rock 'n' roll, frequently being vulgar, violent, juvenile and tasteless —which charmed young viewers and insulted parents” (Goodwin, 1992). The network's enormous success attracted studio executives and advertisers attempted to capitalize on it. Soon television series, commercials and films were being produced in the music video style with rapid editing, glossy visuals and a pop music soundtrack. Many great music artists of the 80s made their initial public appearance on MTV, a fact that explains why some critics suggest that MTV was responsible for focusing on appearance and style over talent in the music industry. (MacDonald, 1990)

The Beginning

One of the key contributors of the cable revolution that changed television in the 1980s was MTV. It started out as the half hour show called Pop Clips on the Nickelodeon network. John Lack, a marketing executive for Warner Cable Corporation, changed the focus of the Nickelodeon network which was mainly aimed at children to also include the teenage audience. While the television industry traditionally considered teenagers as "low users", Lack argued that visual rock music was the way to reach this great, previously untapped audience. (Denisoff, 1988) Pop Clips already had many of the features which were later seen on MTV such as fast-paced mixes of videos set to popular songs, animation, and segments featuring a "veejay". While the original plan to use Pop Clips as a blueprint for a 24 hour video channel came from Lack, it was the 26 year old Robert Pittman who had a real vision for MTV. Pittman had already made a name for himself as a radio station manager working in some of the most competitive and largest markets in the country. (Denisoff, 1988)

Prior to launching MTV, Robert Pittman, did a little homework. According to Denisoff (1988) in his research, which set the tone for MTV, “Pittman found that teenagers wanted a frenetic pace, lots of disjointed thoughts, instability, irreverence, chaos and zaniness along with in depth information about music”. MTV was born on these findings, giving teenagers a channel that delivered what they wanted. (Denisoff, 1988)

While many cable executives were openly skeptical about the potential of the network, in January 1981 Warner Communications, Inc committed they needed $20 million to launch MTV. With just a little over 100 music videos available at the start of MTV, came the challenge of convincing the music industry that financing videos would generate exposure for their artists and make an adequate return. (Powers, 1990)

MTV launched at midnight on 1 August 1981; the first video played was the Buggies' "Video Killed the Radio Star." Unfortunately for early radio stars of the day, this was an omen to the many of their careers. (Powers, 1990)

MTV Comes of Age

MTV grew tremendously since the channel’s first video. In the beginning only about 1 million households across the USA could receive the network. Within the first year their viewers doubled and by 1984 MTV reached over 10 million viewers across the USA. In 1987 MTV Europe was launched out of London, rapidly establishing the network globally by adding over 1.6 million households. (Denisoff, 1988)

As early as 1982 critics in the industry became aware of MTV, but not all their feedback was positive. At a Video Music Conference hosted by Billboard magazine in October that year, the issue of no African American artists being shown on the channel was raised by panelists. Despite this and building pressure from within the music industry, MTV held on to their almost exclusive white rock playlist for almost another year. The huge success of Michael Jackson's Thriller album brought on the change and MTV started accepting videos by black artists in 1983. (Denisoff, 1988)

By 1985 MTV was viewed by many as a promotional channel for the music industry and thus had to face criticism of being overly commercial. Not only was it accused of putting popular but less image centric artists or single based acts at a disadvantage but also of replacing the importance of music with purely visual aesthetics. According to Goldberg (1990) it could be argued that “MTV gave popular artists the most airtime, while on the flipside many of these artists surely became popular because of the exposure provided by MTV” (Goldberg, 1990).


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MTV: The (r)evolution & impact between 1981 – 1994
University of East London  (BUSINESS SCHOOL)
Global Music Production & Distribution
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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576 KB
Assignment: You will provide an account and analysis of a technological development, of your choosing, which had either a positive or a negative effect upon the international music business in the period between 1954 and 1994.
MTV, music, television, impact, evoloution, revolution
Quote paper
Jan-Patrick Stolpmann (Author), 2011, MTV: The (r)evolution & impact between 1981 – 1994, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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