Over the weekend I was so jealous when various friends mentioned that they were tuning in to the original first hour of MTV. In celebration of the 30th anniversary of MTV’s launch on August 1, 1981; VH1 Classic is in the midst of a 3-day marathon full of retro MTV programming, including a rebroadcast of the original first hour of MTV complete with commercials. Finally I couldn’t stand it anymore, and I made a call to my satellite TV provider to ask for an upgrade so that I could watch the MTV30 specials before they ended today.
Although I’m looking forward to tuning in to old clips from Yo! MTV Raps, House of Style, and MTV Video Awards shows, I was most excited to watch that original hour of programming from August 1, 1981, even though I never got to see it during my youth. My parents didn’t spring for cable in the 1980s, so my introduction to early music videos was from video shows like “MV3,” Video One,” “California Music Channel” (which was simulcast over a local radio station) and “Night Music.” As I sat down to watch MTV’s original hour (it will be re-run today as well), I was struck by the number of references to radio and to stereo sound. 30 years later a lot has changed. Not only has MTV’s programming drifted away from music videos (although they did recently bring back the video music show 120 Minutes), but an entire generation has lost interest in high fidelity stereo sound.
The first hour of MTV from August 1, 1981 began with footage of a space shuttle’s launch, followed by the words “Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock and Roll” and then the Buggles’ video “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In that video, piles of vintage radios can be seen as futuristic looking characters reminisce that “In my mind and in my car/We can’t rewind, we’ve gone to far/Pictures came and broke your heart/Put the blame on VTR.”
Much as home-taping was rumored to be killing the record industry, there was concern that cable television and video recorders were threatening traditional broadcasting outlets and the Buggles’ video questions if video was killing off the radio stars of the past.
A promotional video for MTV chronicled the importance of music to humankind and recounted that “man invented the radio and the phonograph” and explained that “full stereo sound…made the explosion.”
The first MTV VJ Mark Goodman welcomed viewers to “the world’s first 24 hour stereo video music channel.” He explained that “a new concept is born. The best of TV combined with the best of radio” and in his second segment he argued that, “We’ll be doing for TV, what FM did for radio.” Even commercials during that first hour referenced radio, as an ad for “The Bulk”showed a transistor radio being crammed into the expandable binder. Another commercial for Dolby hyped Dolby noise reduction, saying, “almost every time you play a recording, turn on the radio, or go to the movies, Dolby noise reduction has helped make the sound more real.”
At the time of its launch MTV also promoted the opportunity to listen to the cable network over the radio in stereo. By sending MTV a self-addressed stamped envelope, one could acquire an “MTV Dial Position Sticker,” which would “mark the exact spot where our sound comes in.”
It’s easy to imagine stereophiles back in 1981 hooking up their televisions to speakers or to FM stereo in order to watch videos in high fidelity sound. Yet today that promise seems antiquated in light of music fans tuning in to compressed sounds over the Internet or through iPods and earbuds. Although the Buggles’ first video on MTV nostalgically mused that VTRs (video tape recorders) killed the radio star, 30 years later we might wonder if iPods or the Internet killed the video star. In any event, I’m enjoying the look back at MTV’s past on VH1 Classic today, although I wonder why MTV didn’t share its history on its own flagship channel. Perhaps because MTV killed the video star.
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