“If advertisers make the video disco channel a success, the implications for cable television and the recording industry could be far reaching,” wrote a New York Times business columnist in the summer of 1981 about the upcoming premiere of a new cable television network dedicated exclusively to popular music. This prediction proved to be an understatement of historic proportions, though not exactly overnight.
Though the premiere of MTV on this day in 1981 would later be seen as the beginning of a whole new era in popular culture, only a few thousand night-owl subscribers to a single northern New Jersey cable system were able to witness the televised revolution. It was just after midnight in the early morning hours of August 1, 1981, that the fledgling Music Television network flickered to life. “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll” were the words that preceded on opening montage featuring a chunky guitar riff playing over the familiar image of an American astronaut planting an unfamiliar flag on the surface of the moon—a flag emblazoned with a big, block capital “M” and the smaller, handwritten letters “TV.”
The video that followed was, famously and prophetically, “Video Killed The Radio Star” by the little-known English electronic new wave duo, the Buggles. Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run” followed, and from there a rotation that featured several songs and videos that might be considered classics of the early MTV era (e.g., “Rapture” by Blondie and “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils Band) and many more that might not (e.g., “Can’t Happen Here” by Rainbow and “Little Susie’s On The Up” by PhD). The roughly 80 different videos that made up that first week’s rotation on MTV probably represented nearly every promotional music video then available.
This would change, of course, as MTV proved its ability to break new artists and as record labels responded with ever larger budgets for lavish video productions. But on that first night, as several employees of the fledgling MTV gathered to watch their creation in a New Jersey bar, it is impossible to say how many others actually joined them. Soon enough, however, MTV would spread to cable systems nationwide and begin to exert the cultural influence that has since been credited (or blamed) for everything from Flashdance and Miami Vice to Rick Astley and Attention Deficit Disorder.