Today, with more than 340 million viewers worldwide, MTV is a cultural phenomenon, a force that has changed the worlds of fashion, movies, and music itself. But in 1981, when a small band of men and women started the first 24-hour music channel, no one was interested—except the kids.
by Robert Sam Anson November 2000
The MTV Video Music Awards show at Radio City Music Hall this year was, as it is every year, music at its most outrageous. There was Britney Spears doing a bump-and-grind strip; there was Eminem singing bleep after bleep; there was Jennifer Lopez flashing skin; there were Toni Braxton, ’N Sync, Ricky Martin, Sting, Janet Jackson, Limp Bizkit, LL Cool J, Christina Aguilera, Macy Gray, Steven Tyler, and the Red Hot Chili Peppers acting the royalty that they are. There, midst the klieg lights and the stretch limos and the red carpets, was the cultural phenomenon that is MTV.
Now watched by more than 340 million viewers in 139 countries (among them, Russia, China, and Vietnam), MTV has been credited with creating icons (Michael Jackson and Madonna leading a long and glittering list), influencing fashion, spawning movies and television shows (Flashdance, Miami Vice), saving the music industry, even ending the Cold War. Not to mention, according to its critics, leading several young generations to perdition.
MTV has shaped so much for so long, it is hard to recall a time when there wasn’t a blocky, graffiti-sprayed M (the channel’s break-all-the-design-rules logo is counted one of the most instantly identifiable on the planet) peering into the living room. But there was. Eons ago, when Ronald Reagan was in the first months of his presidency and Bill Gates had yet to make his first billion and cable television was boasting an unheard-of two dozen choices, there was no such thing as a 24-hour music channel, and many thought that just fine. A handful of those who didn’t worked at an organization called Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, wasec for infelicitous short. A joint venture of Steve Ross’s Warner Communications Incorporated and James Robinson III’s American Express, wasec was created in 1979 to provide programming for Warner Amex’s struggling cable systems. Its president was Jack Schneider, a crusty broadcasting legend who’d recently come to Warner following a long career as chief of the CBS Broadcast Group. Schneider’s number two, wasec executive vice president and chief operating officer, was 33-year-old John Lack, a Manhattan-born, self-identified “major rock ’n’ roller,” who’d made his bones running CBS’s all-news radio station in New York. The final member of the wasec management triumvirate was marketing and sales chief Bob McGroarty, another CBS Radio alum. Together, Schneider, Lack, and McGroarty oversaw the creation of two media entities (the Movie Channel, the first-ever 24-hour movie service, and Nickelodeon, a fledgling children’s channel), had a pair of others in development (tentatively titled the Games Channel and ShopAmerica), and were on the lookout for trailblazing, cheaply produced others. They had yet to find one when, one fine day in the summer of 1979, Jac Holzman, founder of Elektra Records, brought John Lack a clutch of videotapes.
What follows is the story of the cable television network that resulted, its building and formative early years—a time when everything was up for grabs, including MTV’s survival. It is told by the men and women who created MTV, their words edited and sequenced to clarify meaning. The titles that follow their names were those they held when the events described were taking place.
Jac Holzman, senior vice president, Warner communications: I’d been involved with music videos—“clips,” we were calling them then—a long time. When we came out with the first Doors album in 1967, we made a video of them doing “Break On Through.” Did it with our own in-house camera, and it cost maybe $1,000. We sent it around to the afternoon dance shows, and it helped get them a lot of attention. I thought, Gee, this is kind of nice: exposure through another medium. I was thinking also that we could probably get some exposure overseas, because we were having a tough time with our really basic American music in Europe, and videos were very big over there.Years pass, and I see a video called “Rio” made by Michael Nesmith, formerly of the Monkees, and it was a whole different order of magnitude from anything I’d seen. He understood that music was not just about audio, but had a visual component which would carry further the meaning of the song. At the time, people were listening to music sort of in one ear and out the other. Videos like “Rio,” I thought, would ground the experience more solidly. I brought it to the attention of Steve Ross, and Steve told me, “There’s an interesting guy over at wasec. Go over and meet him, and see what you guys can cook up.” So I walked into Lack’s office with this stuff and tales of my friend Nesmith. I said, “I think there is really something here. I think we are going to see more and more of these videos.”
Bob McGroarty: Lack called and said, “There’s a guy in my office showing me videos. You gotta see this.” So I went in and Jac showed us these videos they were using for promotional purposes in Europe. I said, “Jesus, we ought to take these and put them on the backside of Nickelodeon and test them in Columbus.” Lack said, “No, let’s start a network.”
Michael Nesmith: I was living in Carmel and making videos, mostly for Europe. If you get a song on TV stations over there, it’s almost assured to be a hit. “Rio” was the first. It wasn’t me singing in front of a camera, but a series of disparate images that proceed from the spirit of the song. I made other videos using the same techniques. Then Jac and I talked. He told me to go see John Lack at this Warner Amex joint cable venture. Jac said, “Something tells me he’ll get this.” I flew to New York and showed John my clips. He said, “God, can you imagine what this could mean? You put it on 24 hours a day and you got a cable channel. Will you go make me a bunch of these?” I said, “Sure.” I went back to Carmel and put together 10 half-hour shows and sent them off. John said, “This is not what I had in mind at all. You have to have hits on here, and you are sending things like Towers of Babylon and Debby Boone.” I said, “Do me a favor. Just test it and see what you’ve got.” He said, “O.K., I think Nickelodeon has some teenagers watching.” They put them on, and according to a woman who was at Nick at the time, Gerry Laybourne, the needle just went off the meter. She said, “This thing is a walkaway hit. Let’s do this.” I said, “No, because what you’re talking about is setting a channel full of commercials for records—and that just doesn’t light my fire.” John said, “We are going to take this and run with it. You sure you don’t want a seat on this bus?” I said, “Yeah, I’m sure. Just pay me for what I’ve done and I’ll go away.”
Now the idea of a 24-hour music channel had to be sold to higher-ups: Schneider first, then David Horowitz, a senior Warner executive overseeing the company’s music and cable interests.
John Lack: Schneider’s first question was “What makes you think they will watch a second time?” I said, “Jack, because when you listen to music, the first time is just to be introduced to the song. The second time, you get to know it. The third, fourth, fifth, and sixth time, you think, This is a great song. But it’s the 100th time you hear it that gives you all these psychological synapse poppings. Every time you hear it, something else happens. It reminds you of things. If we do our job right, and the videos are movies and little poems, it’s going to be even more attractive. You are going to say, ‘Oh, I just noticed that for the first time.’ ”
Jack Schneider: If you have a disc jockey with a microphone, a transmitter, and 40 records, you’ve got your radio station. So why don’t we put a disc jockey on TV? I knew that many Columbia artists had been making tapes of their work for some time, because in Europe all the radio networks were government-controlled, and all they played was orchestras. If you were Mick Jagger, video was how you broke something.
David Horowitz, co–chief operating officer, Warner communications: Jack said, “They’ve got this idea for a channel,” and since it was all-music, they wanted to discuss it with me. We went from there. They’d present their ideas, and I would ask questions, raise objections. And they’d come back with the answers. We refined and refined. And I got more and more excited as we did.
A crucial member of the project was Bob Pittman, a Mississippi Methodist minister’s son and radio-programming wizard, who’d started in the business as a 15-year-old disc jockey. In the decade since, Pittman, who’d originally been hired to program the Movie Channel, had established a reputation for whip-smartness, otherworldly self-assurance, and obsessive attention to consumer desires as he lifted one station after another to the top of its market.
Bob Pittman: I had some experience with music videos, through a show I did for NBC in ’78 called Album Tracks. A lot of other people had been playing around, but no one had hit on a winning formula. The concept I had was to have a clear image, to build an attitude. In other words, to build a brand, a channel that happened to use video clips as a building block, as opposed to being a delivery system for videos. The star wouldn’t be the videos, the star would be the channel.
As plans began taking shape, others came aboard, including two figures who would play increasingly key roles in the channel’s direction: Tom Freston, a rock-loving ex-adman, and John Sykes, an Epic Records promoter, who’d been working in the Midwest.
Tom Freston, director of regional marketing: When I got out of school, I took 18 months off and traveled. Worked as a bartender in the Caribbean and Colorado. Then I went to Benton & Bowles. First account was G.I. Joe. Vietnam was on, and we were trying to reposition him as an “action toy.” I kid you not. When they assigned me to a toilet-paper account, I said, “Oh, man,” and decided to go around the world. I went to meet a girl in Paris, and went on from there down through the Sahara Desert and just kept going. I ended up in Afghanistan, where I went into the clothing business. I came back to sort of change my life around, and read about this 24-hour music channel in Billboard. The idea appealed. First, I was a fan. Second, I’d spent a bunch of years doing something I really loved, and decided that whatever I did after would be something I loved. This was. I probably would have done it for a lot less money than they paid me.
John Sykes, director of promotions: In college, I thought, God, why can’t we put these bands on TV and get them out to places in America where they never tour? I M.C.’d and produced shows when bands came to campus. But I could only get them on the closed-circuit university system; the local cable company wouldn’t run it. When I got to Epic, I pitched a bunch of gray-haired old men on my idea, and they said, “Come back when you get 20 years’ experience in Hartford.” But, on my own, I started collecting music videos that were coming out of Europe and Australia. I persuaded my bosses to let me edit them into a one-hour show, so if customers walked into a store, they could see what a new artist like Cheap Trick looked like and maybe buy a record. Then I heard that Warner Amex had a lot of cash and wanted to get into this new business. I call Bob Pittman three times a week for five months, get an interview, and when we finally meet he hires me on the spot. But to work at this rock ’n’ roll channel, I have to buy a suit. The theory was: wear suits and ties because you are so young so you’ll look respectable and people will think you mean business. It was like IBM had shot off a rock ’n’ roll division.
By early December 1980 the group was ready to make its proposal to the wasec board. Ross was assumed to be a sure sell. The worry was James Robinson III, the conservative, Atlanta-bred C.E.O. of American Express.
John Lack: Schneider led off with the general overall concept. Then I got up and explained the business plan and all that crap—the vision, so to speak. Then Pittman got up and turned on the VCR to play the music, and it worked, thank God. Then McGroarty got up and told them what sales were going to be. At the end of it, Ross turned to Schneider and said, “Jack, would you put your money into this?” And Jack—who was 53 at the time and really didn’t think of this shit as his cup of tea—hesitated. I kicked him under the table so hard he almost fell over. And he said, “Yep, yep, yep.”
Bob Pittman: Jack was the expert on these people, and he was saying, “These Amex guys are going to be afraid of rock ’n’ roll music.” So the video clips I put on were Olivia Newton-John and the most plain-vanilla stuff I could find. Jim Robinson or Lou Gerstner, who was a member of the Amex board and is now the head of IBM, made a comment, “Do we have to play all that noise?” I was thinking, God, if they heard the stuff we were going to play.
James Robinson III: Steve Ross turns to me and says, “What do you think?” I said, “I’ve got one question. Where in the world do you get your raw material?” Steve said, “Oh, that’s no problem. Every time one of these rock groups creates a new album, they do a video clip and give it away as promotion.” I said, “You mean, you have no cost?” He said, “No.” I said, “Steve, you’ve got my $10 million.” We committed in the first two minutes. They had to spend the next 45 convincing their sister company why this was a good idea.
John Lack: Ross hemmed and hawed. Then he told a story about his daughter. He said, “You know, she said I ought to do it, so I’m going to do it.”
Having secured financial backing (which would total $25 million by the time of launch), the managers of the as-yet-unnamed new channel set out to enlist cable operators to carry the service, which, as an inducement, was being offered free of charge.
Andy Orgel, vice president for affiliate sales and marketing: One of our first trips was to the Greenbriar, where we’d assembled all the Warner cable-system managers. Our guys. I was armed with really hot music and a great story of how cable operators could make money by appealing to a tremendously valuable segment of the audience. “So,” I said, after I finished my pitch, “what do you think?” And there was total silence. Finally, one guy got up and said, “Now, if you sold me a channel of country music that really reflects America, I’d put that on—but I’m not going to put this on.” Right then, we knew we had our work cut out for us.
John Lack: The cable operators were pole climbers, guys who were engineers and had a big antenna on the highest hill in town, bringing in distant signals. They didn’t know original programming. ESPN was sports nobody else wanted, CNN was news radio on TV, HBO was unedited old movies. When they saw the crazy sex shit from New York and L.A. we were trying to sell, their attitude was “Who needs it? We got good little communities. We’re Baptist. We don’t need this crap coming in, corrupting our children.”
Jack Schneider: John Malone, the head of the biggest operation, TCI, was a pure thug. I went to sell him MTV, and he said, “I want a piece of it, 10 percent.” I said, “I’m not going to give you 10 percent of it.” And he said, “Then you’re not going to get into my systems.”
Mark Booth, affiliate-relations manager: The problem was that at the time there were probably, on average, 25 channels on a cable system, and the cable operator had about 50 options—of which ours was probably No. 48. They were much more comfortable with putting on another sports channel than they were rock ’n’ roll. And most of us were kids. It wasn’t as if we had any credibility.
John Shaker, new england sales manager: I was pitching one operator in Connecticut, playing him a tape on a boom box, so he could hear the stereo sound we were going to offer. I said, “What do you think?” He said, “I think nobody will ever buy it.” I asked, “Do you have any kids?” He said, “Eighteen and 23.” I said, “Would they like this channel?” He said, “They’d love it.” I said, “There’s the reason why you should put this on your cable system.” He said, “Yeah, but I’d hate it.”
The reception from the record companies—then mired in a slump—was only slightly warmer.
Stan Cornyn, executive vice president, Warner Bros. Records: Pittman showed up in my office and said, “Will you make these for us?” Meaning, would we spend our money to do their programming. Trying to be a good corporate scout, I said, “We are going to get into this”—which meant nothing, of course. We did do a little bit, but the people at MTV had a huge sales job. When it comes to interest in new technology, the record business finishes just ahead of the Amish.
Bob Summer, president, RCA Records: Lack took me to dinner at the Four Seasons and tried to explain why this was going to be so good for us. When you have a good business, and someone proposes to change your fundamental marketing tactic, you have to think more than twice. But you had the sense that these guys were definitely going to go for it. We signed on and started to produce videos in the range of $15,000 to $25,000 a pop. Everyone played a little at first. But no one really dove in.
John Lack: I went out to the first Billboard video-music convention, and was on a panel with Michael Nesmith, Sid Sheinberg, the president of MCA-Universal, and the head of Arbitron, one of those research companies. The guy from Arbitron gets up and says, “There is definitely a market for video music.” Nesmith gets up and says, “This is going to be the creative stuff for the next generation.” I get up and go, “Warner is putting in $25 million, and we have to get your clips.” Then Sheinberg gets up. He says, “This guy Lack is out of his fucking mind, ’cause we ain’t giving him our music.”
Jack Schneider: The record companies hated it. They said, “We made this mistake in radio—you ain’t gonna catch us making it again. You are going to have to pay for the rights to this video.” Walter Yetnikoff, the head of CBS Records, was adamant: We weren’t getting anything.
Bob Pittman: John Sykes and I used to schlepp around with a bunch of poster boards under our arms and lay out this whole presentation. We said, “We’re even going to put the name of your company on the video clip at the beginning and at the end, so if the record store doesn’t have it in stock, the viewer can say where to order it.” We didn’t wind up with enough videos, and most were Andrew Gold and even worse. But we said, “You know, if we are successful, they’ll make more videos, and if we aren’t, who the hell cares? We’ll be out of business anyway.”
The last hurdle was the advertising community, which the business plan had slated to be the new channel’s sole source of revenue. The first big pitch was to be made at a convention at the Hilton Hotel in New York, where new cable channels would be shown to major agencies. Pittman commissioned a video to give the presentation some flash, assigning the job to Fred Seibert, a Columbia-educated Grammy-nominated jazz-record producer, who had come to the Movie Channel after a stint at WHN Radio, and who would be pivotal in giving MTV its hip, anti-TV look. Working with Seibert was his Columbia classmate Alan Goodman, a brand-new Movie Channel hire, who’d been an ad copywriter at CBS Records.
Alan Goodman: The first week I was at work, Pittman walked into the little office I was sharing with Fred and said, “O.K., next week we’re announcing the music channel we’ve been planning, so why don’t you two guys make some sort of three-minute thing.” I didn’t have a clue how you make a three-minute tape. I only knew that Pittman said we had to have it in a week. So we go into the studio with a bunch of slides and four promo clips we’d gotten from Warner Records. We also had an announcer’s track that we had cleverly thought to record in stereo, because MTV was going to be the first stereo television channel. I’d come up with this idea to switch from the left channel to the right channel on each alternating line—which seemed outrageously devilish. I sat there with all this stuff, and I thought, What does my friend who produces commercials do? That’s how we got started. And after a few days, we emerged from the studio with this tape.
Fred Seibert: It was one of those dull convention days. Ten people were onstage saying they were launching cable channels, the Nostalgia Channel, this and that, even a channel specifically targeted for “old people.”
Andy Setos, senior vice president, engineering and operations: Everyone was bored to tears. All day long people had been talking about numbers that didn’t exist and screening tapes on a crappy little projection system. People were half asleep, or walking out in the halls. Well, we’d brought a little surprise: our own videotape machine, a very large screen, and state-of-the-art speakers.
Bob McGroarty: I stood at the podium and said, “On August 1, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company introduces music television.” With that, Setos hits a button, and Rod Stewart is in everyone’s face. There were people, honest to God, dancing. I thought, Holy Christ! This is bigger than I ever imagined.
Fred Seibert: You would have thought we’d dropped the Beatles in the middle of the thing. The room was on its feet clapping and cheering. I’m like, Oh, my God, I’m in a rock band again.
The new channel’s rock bands would be presented by “V.J.’s.” To find them, Robert Morton, later to become David Letterman’s executive producer, and Sue Steinberg mounted a bi-coastal search.
Sue Steinberg, executive producer: We wanted V.J.’s who would be part of our audience, who wouldn’t say, “I’m the host of your show today,” but “I’m so-and-so and I will be with you for the next couple hours.” The important words were “with you.” We wanted you to come on this ride with us.
Alan Hunter, V.J.: I was an actor and had been in New York for about a year, and bumped into Pittman and Sykes in Central Park at the “Way Up North in Mississippi Picnic,” an annual event for people born, bred, or, like I was, educated in Mississippi. There was a lot of watermelon eating and “Dixie” singing, but Pittman and Sykes were dressed up like they were loaded for business bear. Bob said he was working on some venture for Warner Amex, I said I was a bartender, and that was about it. Three weeks later I get a call from Sue Steinberg, who says, “Bob thinks you should come and audition.” I got hired three weeks before we went on the air. At that point, they must have been sweating bullets.
Nina Blackwood, V.J.: I was in L.A. working on video projects as a host. I was always reading Billboard, and I saw this ad saying, “24-hour music channel looking for on-air hosts. Must be knowledgeable and love music.” I sent off my résumé and my 8-by-10s in a picture book I drew with crayons, because I wanted to make it look punkish. I was dressed head to foot in black the day I did the audition. I was dying because I was so warm—but I had to look cool. Couple of months went by and I didn’t hear anything. I called up the number they’d given me, and they said, “Oh, yeah, we want you to fly to New York.” I went, and Sue and Robert say, “We want to hire you, but you have to move to New York.” Knowing I’m not totally knocked out about that, they take me to lunch at Tavern on the Green, where something gets stuck in my throat. Morton jumps up and gives me the Heimlich maneuver. “Now you have to take this job,” he says. “I saved your life.”
J. J. Jackson, V.J.: I was on an L.A. radio station called K-West. They changed formats, and I was gone in a day. So I got an audition, where I was supposed to interview one of the producers, pretending that he was Billy Joel—which made it kind of difficult for me, because I didn’t particularly care for Billy Joel. But I knew my shit rock-’n’-roll-wise, and they were very impressed. They said, “You know, of course, that you will have to move to New York.” I said, “You see that beautiful black Jensen Interceptor sitting out there? You see those mountains, that blue sky, those big, puffy clouds? All that goes away if I go to Manhattan. But I’ll go, ’cause I need the gig.”
Martha Quinn, V.J.: I was a senior at N.Y.U., just doing my thing, which included doing some television commercials to put myself through college, and being an intern at WNBC Radio, where Bob Pittman had been the program director. I was at the station one afternoon when a guy in the office said, “You should be a V.J.” I said, “What’s a V.J.?” And he said, “It’s just like being on the radio, but it’s on television.” To which I replied, “What do you do during the records?” He said, “It’s videos, fool.” I couldn’t imagine what he was talking about. But he called Pittman, who said I should come right away. It’s 5:30, my hair is stringy, I’m wearing a glitter iron-on T-shirt with country music is in my blood written on it, I’ve got no makeup on, and I’m wearing tennis shorts, but I go. Two days later, there’s a message on my answering machine from Sue, saying, “We’ve got good news for you.”
Mark Goodman, V.J.: I was working at WPLJ in New York and getting sick of talking to Hair Bands who thought that because they were wealthy they had something to say. I heard about MTV, got an audition, was freaked and nervous, but got hired. In Sue’s casting vision, I was the hunk, Nina was the vamp, Martha was the cute girl next door, Alan was the jock, J.J. was the cool black guy. I never felt like a hunk, but I thanked her for placing me in the role.
With the August 1, 1981, launch date fast approaching, the staff scrambled to attend to a thousand details, starting with coming up with a channel name.
Steve Casey, director of music programming: Bob wanted to call it “TV1,” but it turned out the damned Italians had it. Lack talked about “the Music Channel,” but that didn’t work, either: the initials would be the same as the Movie Channel. We were under pressure to do something, so we were writing out different possibilities. Finally, I came up with “MTV.” I didn’t like the way it sounded so much as the way it looked. It really seemed cool. No one said “Great,” but no one had a better idea, and that ended the meeting.
Sue Steinberg: Saturday Night Live had a set that was sort of a netherworld. That’s what I wanted—the viewer to use their imagination to figure out where they were. The look we gave it was somewhere between a SoHo loft—those were really cool spaces in New York; you envied the people who lived there—and a rec room, like the ones where I’d grown up in Pennsylvania. It was a space where you could do whatever you wanted, space where you knew your parents wouldn’t go.
Fred Seibert: We were sitting around talking about what we wanted to claim at the top of every hour, and I said, “Seems to me that the thing we are most conceited about is that we actually think that we are changing the world. Well, at least the world of television.” That got us talking about the most famous things that have ever happened on television. Someone says the Kennedy assassination, but we know we can’t use that. Finally, I said, “The moonwalk. I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, when it happened, and saw the streets clear out because everyone was going to a television set to watch. So let’s use the moonwalk and the flag.” And Marcy Brafman, who was running the promotion department, says, “Cool—space is very rock ’n’ roll.”
Tom Freston: We knew we needed a real signature piece that would look different from everything else on TV. We also knew that we had no money. So we went to nasa and got the man-on-the-moon footage, which is public domain. We put our logo on the flag and some music under it. We thought that was sort of a rock ’n’ roll attitude: “Let’s take man’s greatest moment technologically, and rip it off.”
Fred Seibert: We were going to include Neil Armstrong doing his “One small step,” but the lawyers said, “You can’t. Neil Armstrong owns his name and likeness.” I’m 28 or 29 and rolling my eyes at these stupid lawyers. “It’s all done,” I say. “We’ve got to use it. It will be terrible without it.” The lawyer says, “Sorry.” So I said, “Call Neil Armstrong.” They do, and Armstrong says, “Are you crazy?” We got to put in something, and Marcy comes up with “Beep … beep … beep,” ’cause nothing else will fill the space. We ran that “Beep … beep … beep” 17,000 times a year.
Patti Rogoff, Manhattan Design: Fred Seibert came to see us one day to talk about this dream of a 24-hour cable TV station. At the time, cable was nothing, but rock ’n’ roll was something, so we all got very excited and started scribbling away. I wasn’t a design partner; I did the billing and wrote the contracts. But I scribbled, too, on this little piece of tissue that got all crumpled up and put at the bottom of the envelope when we sent over all the ideas. Fred had said he wanted something comparable to the CBS eye. Something strong and unforgettable that said music and said television. Now, rock ’n’ roll was not my thing then. I’m a Detroit girl; jazz and Motown were my thing. But you could not get away from rock in that office, which was one 10-by-10 room in the back of a Tai Chi school on top of Bigelow’s Pharmacy on Sixth Avenue. They played rock all day long. If things got tense, they’d crank up the music, which made me even crazier. So, even though I didn’t love it, rock ’n’ roll was this big, blocky, heavy thing hitting me in the head all of the time. I’m sketching, and I’m vaguely remembering walking down 10th Street in the Village and passing the playground of an elementary school, and looking at a brick wall that the kids had painted with graffiti. And it all came into my mind: a graffiti “TV”—which was the constantly changing television-image thing—on top of a big, three-dimensional M—the force rock was having in my life.
Tom Freston: We took the logo over to Ogilvy & Mather, the big-time, Establishment ad agency we were using at the time, and the guy there was appalled. He said, “I’ve been in this business for 20 years, and you kids don’t know anything. The first rule is that you never change anything. You need to have a static image. It needs to be consistent.” We said, “Our consistency will be our inconsistency. We’ll turn it inside out.” And he said, “It looks like you are running a fucking cinder-block company here.” When we left, he called Schneider to squeal on us: “These guys are about to take this biz down the tubes. They have the ugliest fucking logo behind the stupidest idea you have ever seen.” But Jack, who was about as far removed from popular culture as anyone you could find, trusted our instincts. He let it slide.
Steve Casey: We had about 120 videos total, so I couldn’t afford to be real choosy. If you could get through an entire video, and there were no glitches, it was “O.K., we’ll play that.” One of the videos we were able to get our hands on was “Video Killed the Radio Star,” by the Buggles, an English group. It was anything but a hit. You might think that the best way to start a channel would be with a No. 1 song. But I’m kind of a twisted guy, and as soon as I saw it, I knew we had to start with this thing.
The evening of August 1, MTV’s staff boarded buses for a trip across the George Washington Bridge to the basement of a sports bar in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the closest place to Manhattan with a signal.
John Lack: I’d gone into the studio earlier that day to record an opening. It was “Ladies and gentlemen, rock ’n’ roll.” Then the spaceship went up, and then the first song: “Video Killed the Radio Star.” It was like a baby was born.
Sue Binford, public-relations manager: We all had our new MTV black satin jackets with the logo on the back. People were crammed into this very small room, and there were screens scattered around. Everyone felt it had been a long spring and summer, and nobody had slept getting this thing launched, so we were ready to party, no matter what. Then, at a minute past midnight, it was “Five … four … three … two … one … ,” and we all kind of crossed our fingers and hoped for the best.
Bob Pittman: I spent the entire evening on a pay phone talking to Andy Setos, trying to figure out what was going on and straighten it out. All the V.J. segments were out of sequence. They would say, “That was,” and it wasn’t, and “Coming up is,” and it wasn’t coming up. The polarization on the wires was also switched, so if you were listening in stereo, it was fine, but if you were in mono, it was canceling the sound out. There were all sorts of things happening. I was in sheer panic.
Andy Setos: At 12:15, Pittman calls the control room and in his best southern drawl says, “Andy, the clips aren’t playing in the right order.” We were all bedraggled, hadn’t had any sleep for days. The building where we were working wasn’t even finished. We were using Port-O-Sans, and the air-conditioning was coming in through these big tubes. I said, “Bob, are they playing?” It was bad, and who knows who was even watching. But all the equipment functioned, and, damn it, we were on the air.
Tom Freston: There had been so much focus, so much work, on what that first hour would be like. And I thought, How foolish. Because ain’t nobody saw the first hour, really. And then we had a constant stream of 24-hour days after that to fill up. Because, unless we went out of business, we would never go off the air.
The press was largely critical of MTV’s debut, and with the channel not airing in the biggest media markets, advertisers, cable operators, and record companies yawned. Desperate for positive feedback, Pittman dispatched Freston and Sykes to four midsize cities with cable systems carrying MTV. The orders were to find upbeat stories—and not to come back until they did. Their first stop was Tulsa, Oklahoma.
Tom Freston: John had worn an MTV button on his suit, and when we went into the hotel, it was “Oh, man, MTV! Can I have that?” The bellhop would want it, the waitress would want it. It was the hottest thing in town. I called the people back in New York and said, “You will not believe it—this thing is working!”
John Sykes: We finally hit pay dirt when we went into a record store and asked if there was any reaction to the songs we were playing that weren’t being played on the local radio stations. The manager said, “Yeah, we sold a box of Buggles albums.” We were like, “Yes!” Within two weeks, we had trade ads in Billboard, with quotes from all the store managers in Tulsa, claiming that MTV was having this profound impact on record sales.
Back at MTV, the most pressing problem was finding more—and better—videos.
John Lack: The music in the beginning wasn’t that good. It was mediocre bands playing, or stupid poetry, or psychedelic bullshit.
Alan Hunter: There just wasn’t a whole lot of catalogue. I came to work one day and said to the producer, “I have seen these REO Speedwagon videos so many fucking times, I have flat run out of things to say.” It was my shortest shift ever.
Sue Binford: Pat Benatar’s video played so often, every time it came on, the whole room would break into the chorus: “You better run, you better hide … ” We could all sing it in our sleep. When we had a new video on, everyone would just stop. We’d be so excited seeing something different on the screen.
Gale Sparrow, talent coordinator: Rod Stewart had eight videos, and we played one or two of them every hour on the hour. Thank God he had decent videos and his songs were good. We could have destroyed his career.
Gradually, the record companies began to unbend, partly because of the impact MTV was starting to have on sales, partly because their artists left them no choice.
Bob McGroarty: We’d been asking the record companies to produce videos with no guarantee of success, so we’d been left with groups like Adam Ant that no one else had. But, all of a sudden, people were coming into record stores and saying, “I want Adam Ant’s new album.”
Stan Cornyn: It was reported back to us that records were selling in certain cities without radio airplay. We asked “Why?” and it turned out that there were music videos playing on MTV. An act like Devo is dancing around in their funny masks and stuff like that—and they take off in a market where nothing else is happening. You got to be an idiot not to say, “Something is happening here, let’s pay attention to this.”
Gale Sparrow: We weren’t in New York or L.A., but when artists were on the road, they’d be in their hotel rooms watching us, and they’d call back to their record companies and say, “Why aren’t my videos on this channel?” It got to the point where artists were saying that if they didn’t send these videos to be played on MTV, they would leave the record company. As soon as the artists started insisting, that changed it: we began getting videos.
Lenny Waronker, president, Warner Bros. Records: The pressure from artists and managers was awful. Everybody wanted to do a video. You had to get on. The kids would hang around late at night to watch.
Billy Idol, musician: Radio guys would take one look at my picture with the spiky hair and say, “Punk-rocker. Not playing him.” Then MTV airs my videos, and kids start calling up radio stations saying, “I want to hear Billy Idol!” It really broke the thing wide open. We’d never touched the charts, and the next minute we had a Top 10 album. It was amazing. Nobody’d ever noticed me before. Now I’m walking down the street, and people are yelling “Billy!”
Brian Setzer, musician, the Stray Cats: We put out “Stray Cat Strut,” radio didn’t play it and it flopped. We put it out again, but with a video. Our girlfriends were in it, because we didn’t want friggin’ fashion models—we wanted cool people: rockabilly chicks. MTV played the hell out of it and it clicked. We were playing Tulsa, place called Old Lady of Brady, and cowboys with skinny ties and stuff were coming to see us, guys with black leather jackets and big pompadours and motorcycle boots. It brought us to the masses, MTV.
As more videos came in, so did new hires, including a self-described “nice, straightforward, middle-class girl” who’d be pivotal in MTV’s later years.
Judy McGrath, copywriter: I was at Mademoiselle and Glamour, writing stuff like “Models’ Party Tips,” when I got a call from a friend who knew I loved music. “They are starting this thing called MTV, and their promotion department is looking for a writer,” she said. “You should meet them.” I go over, and the first thing the person who is interviewing me says is “Who is your favorite band?” I tell him. He goes, “You’re wrong,” and proceeds to spend the next hour trashing my choice. Then he says, “You really want to work here? Gee, you’re hired.” I went into the creative group, where they made the TV equivalent of liner notes. It was filled with all these crazy creative types who probably couldn’t find gainful employment anywhere else. The kind of people you know you are going to want to hang out with.
There was a chance for everyone to hang out that December 31, when MTV staged its first New Year’s Eve Rock ’n’ Roll Ball.
Judy McGrath: We decided we can’t do Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve one more time. There’s got to be another choice. We had it in the ballroom of this bad hotel on 44th Street. Sykes was at the door, and John Belushi was in the stairwell, and Bow Wow Wow was onstage. It was the first time I ever saw a mix of Saturday Night Live people, music people, movie people, downtown art people, even a few celebs, all finding a common place to hang out.
Brian Diamond, production assistant: I saw John Belushi leaning on a support beam and taking a drink. And then he just slid down in slow motion and fell into a pile on the floor. This was three months before he died.
Fred Seibert: We’ve only been on the air since August, so I got the bright idea, Why not invite everyone? All the Warner Amex employees, all the cable operators. Paper the house. It’s New York, it’s New Year’s Eve. They’re going to come from Wisconsin? I show up, and it’s raining and snowing and 30 degrees, and there are people in tuxedos lined all the way around the block into Times Square. Vice presidents of Warner Amex I can’t let in, because the fire marshal is going, “One more person comes in and the thing gets shut down.”
Andy Setos: That was the craziest New Year’s Eve of my life. People were trying to get into this thing, saying, “I am the sister of the guy that shines the shoes of the agent of the band that is up there right now.”
Sue Binford: People were standing there under umbrellas—dressed-up-for-a-New-Year’s-Eve-party-type people who looked like they could be advertisers. I thought, My God, this is a hot ticket, and now they may never give us the time of day again. So we had an army going up and down the line trying to identify anyone who could keep us afloat, bringing them food and drink. It became a block party outside.
More fun was to come, courtesy of the new vice president for programming, Les Garland, a much-traveled, southern-Missouri-born radio jock who addressed one and all as “bud.”
Marcy Brafman, director of on-air promotions: The weekly music meetings were every Tuesday in Les’s office. All the department heads would come, and they’d be such fun. They’d put on the new videos, and Les would crank up these huge speakers, and we’d all get to talk about why we thought something should come in, and whether it should be in heavy rotation, which was three or four times a day, or light rotation, which was once or twice a day, or “lunar rotation,” which was, like, once a month. It was exciting, because the music was very exciting then, and it hadn’t been for a real long time.
Andy Setos: Les had theater speakers in his office five feet tall and two feet wide. And he would play them so loud we would get tenants in the building two stories up complaining. I’d say, “Les, you are not going to be able to hear anything anymore after a while.” He’d go, “Yeah, but it’s cool while it’s happening!”
Rick Krim, business manager: I was living outside Philly, working for Price Waterhouse as a first-year accountant, about as far removed from the music business as you could be. One weekend I went to the wedding of my friend from my hometown and bumped into a girl from home, Joan Myers. She tells me she is the assistant to the head of programming at MTV, Les Garland. I said, “Wow! How can I work there?” She says, “Well, it just so happens that my boss, who is not so financially oriented, is looking for someone to, like, run the company’s money.” I go for an interview. Les says, “Myers says you’re cool. When can you start, bud?” That was it. I was 22.
Ronald E. “Buzz” Brindle, director of music programming: I was in a closed-door meeting in Les’s office with Sykes and a couple of other guys, and it happened to be Les’s birthday. There’s a knock, and Les’s secretary ushers in an attractive young woman in a business outfit, who’s carrying a boom box and what appears to be some presentation papers. She starts talking about some product she’s trying to sell. Les is listening and checking her out. Then she starts playing this cassette of bump-and-grind music, and begins stripping. Next thing you know this rather buxom young woman is prancing around Les’s office in her panties. Les’s immediate response is to get up and pull his pants down. Meanwhile, we’re still trying to conduct the meeting. I’m sitting there trying to make a point, while she is bouncing her breasts on top of my bald pate. I thought, This is the perfect Les Garland meeting.
Things were bopping all over MTV, day and night.
John Lack: You put out a product like Clorox, it doesn’t change much in 25 years. You do MTV every day, you better be good and smart and hot and quick—because this generation is changing every 10 minutes. A lot of friends of mine left because they couldn’t keep up. But if you were good, it was the best life you could have, because it was rock ’n’ roll, it was drugs, it was alcohol, it was good-looking women, it was everything that kids love.
Brian Diamond: We were having a big staff meeting, after we’d been on the air about a month, and John Lack walks in. He’s wearing a three-piece suit and smoking a big cigar and all these words start coming out of his mouth. “Things look good, but they have to look great. We have to be different. This can’t look like any television anybody has ever seen. If J.J. is in a lousy mood, let him be in a lousy mood. We want to see that. If he wants to pick up a chair and throw it through a window, let him do it.” Our jaws were on the ground. We’d never heard anybody talk about television like this before.
Les Garland: We had people that slept under their desks. Maybe they passed out. Because we rocked a little bit, too.
Tom Freston: You’d be out five or six nights of the week easily. A lot of relationships got burnt, a lot of people got burnt. I lost a marriage, and a lot of other people had drug or drinking issues, or just couldn’t take it. It was survival of the fittest.
Gale Sparrow: After work, we’d all go over to the restaurant across the street, where everybody from the owner to the dishwasher were wearing MTV T-shirts and buttons. We’d write our ideas on tablecloths until two in the morning, then go out to a club to see a band. Show would be over at three, and we’re back at work at nine, Garland greeting us with Tom Jones singing “It’s Not Unusual” at top volume. “O.K., buds,” Garland says. “We know we’re tired, but we’re going to make it through another day.”
Joe Davola, associate producer: Sue Steinberg came in with these stringer reports we were getting across the country. “We need you to edit this thing,” she said. “Yeah,” I say, like I know what I’m doing. I didn’t know anything. I just got a stopwatch, went into an editing room, and figured it out. That’s how it was all the time at MTV. Just: “Here, go off and do it.” We had huge testicles. There was no fear. It was us against the world.
Bob Pittman: We were a bunch of kids, and when you are a kid, you are just completely sure that you are right. You are maniacal. All of our social life was hanging out with each other. We had some of our best ideas over dinner, drinking and talking and laughing. Someone would say, “Let’s buy a house and give it away in a contest.” And it would be “Hey, why not?”
Mark Pellington, production assistant, promotion department: We’d wear bathing suits and flip-flops and blast music, like kids in a playground. “What if I just throw this shit under the color camera and we turn it negative?” we’d say. “Oh, that looks cool.” And you would see it on the air. Nobody would be telling you what you were doing was wrong. Nobody was saying, “This isn’t linear, this isn’t the right way to do graphics.” They’d just say, “This is our spirit, great.”
Bob Friedman, director of marketing: We didn’t have purple hair in my department, and a couple of us had been to business school, but no one was letting on that they had. MTV was the one place where you’d never admit you’d gone to business school. It was like a collective. We were kids, though, and one day, a very important client was coming, and we were wondering what we could do to seem more mature and grown-up. Someone said, “Let’s buy some of those pictures of fake families and leave them on our desks.” That’s what we did: put pictures of fake families on our desks.
Judy McGrath: I had a friend who went to the Wharton business school who came over sometimes. He’d shake his head and say, “This cannot be a business. This cannot be working. I mean, look at these people! It’s just wrong.”
The contests and promotions MTV used to build viewership projected the lunatic spirit.
John Sykes: I’d sit back and say, “All right, what wild, insane, off-the-wall dream can I come up with, put it on TV, have someone actually win it? How about a lost weekend with Van Halen? If you win, we’ll pick you and your buddy up in a Learjet and fly you off for 48 hours of pure decadence with the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.” If you are 18 years old, that’s a great fantasy.
Richard Schenkman, production assistant: Kid from Pennsylvania wins, and we fly him to Detroit, where Van Halen is performing. The first night, he goes to the show. The band has a big sheet cake onstage, David Lee Roth brings him out, and, as the crowd go apeshit, they dump the cake on him and spray him down completely with bottles of champagne. Show’s over, they go backstage. Van Halen is drinking Jack Daniel’s and the kid is drinking Jack Daniel’s and everyone is getting drunker and drunker. Finally, they throw the kid into the shower to wash him off. A few minutes later, I hear “AAAAAAhhhhhhh … ” coming from the shower. Turns out, they threw one of their groupies into the shower, too.
The music, the mayhem, and the message were beginning to have an effect.
Mark Goodman:I was making a record-store appearance in Wyoming. I thought it would be like Spinal Tap and that there’d be four people there. Well, we round this bend and there are, like, 1,500 people. I thought, My God, who’s here? Then I realized: I’m here!
Marcy Brafman: I knew we were doing something right when I gave my dad an MTV T-shirt. He’d wear it, and the kids would want to mow his lawn for free.
Dom Fioravanti, general manager: I was living in suburban New Jersey and really getting it from the coaches of the local Pop Warner football team. They were accusing me of wrecking their program, because little boys were coming home from school and watching MTV all afternoon, instead of going out for football. But with my kids and all the kids in the neighborhood, I was something sort of special.
Judy McGrath: Tom Freston was in a barbershop one day, and everyone was asking for Rod Stewart haircuts, saying, “I saw it on MTV.” When it begins creeping into that part of the culture, you realized this was not just a couple of unemployed rock fans hanging around watching TV all day. Other people were starting to notice.
Alan Hunter: I kept my bartending job for a month, because I didn’t really know how MTV was going to do. Actor’s mentality. One night, I’m making a daiquiri for a guy, and he’s cocking his head, staring at me the longest time. Finally, he says, “Man, you look so damn familiar.” Then he snapped his fingers. “Man, your voice is familiar, too.” I said, “Where are you from?” He says, “Jersey.” I say, “You ever watch that MTV show?” He says, “Yes.” That’s when I began to realize that maybe MTV is going to be a job I can keep.
For all the buzz, MTV was hemorrhaging cash, as advertisers—the sole source of revenue—hung back, spooked by the continued refusal of most cable operators to carry the channel. Numbers told the story. At launch, MTV publicly claimed 2.5 million cable customers. In fact, MTV executives admit, the total was well below a million.
Beverly Weinstein, ad sales: The first year, we were lucky if we made $1 million in sales. There was no interest, no ratings, no nothing. The ad biz is very risk-averse, and this was something that was brand-new. People just weren’t standing in line to buy it.
Jordan Rost, vice president, research: The people we needed to sell were not in the demographics, didn’t have passion about music, didn’t care what was happening in Council Bluffs. Until they saw their own kids going wild, they weren’t going to buy.
Fred Seibert: I went to a cable convention after we launched, and the talk on the floor was the Weather Channel, not MTV. Because that’s how old the operators were. They didn’t spend their weekends thinking, Who’s on Top of the Pops? They spent their weekends going, “Thank God it’s nice out.”
George Lois, ad-agency executive: Everyone considered MTV the stupidest idea in the history of communications. Rock ’n’ roll 24 hours a day? Talking to 16-year-old idiots? Sex, drugs, blah, blah, blah? It was a joke.
In early 1982, Pittman instructed Lois’s partner Dale Pon to devise an ad campaign that would break the logjam.
Dale Pon: They were scared. Everybody I ran into told me: “This has got to work. We’re counting on you, Dale. Don’t fuck up. In 45 days, new stuff has got to go on the air.” So I’m thinking about rock ’n’ roll and everything that is related to rock ’n’ roll. And the question I put to myself was “What’s your favorite rock ’n’ roll song of all time?” For me, it was the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction.” That helped me understand the true nature of rock ’n’ roll: insatiable desire. We’d done an earlier trade ad campaign called “Cable brats”—“Rock and roll wasn’t enough for them. Now they want their MTV.” We just shortened it to “I want my MTV,” an homage to a famous cereal campaign George did in the 60s. Then a partner of mine, Dick Gershon, had a brilliant idea: “Let’s advertise where there is no distribution, where the cable operator has said no. We say, ‘Call your cable operator, America! Demand your MTV! Here’s the phone number. Make them fucking sorry they said no.’ ”
Lois presented the pitch to MTV’s senior staff.
Les Garland: George comes rolling in with his easel and says, “Garland, who does MTV belong to?” Warner Amex. Wrong. “Pittman, who does MTV belong to?” He’s got this trick-question thing going with everyone in the room. Finally he says, “MTV is the color-TV phenomenon, you guys. If you are the kid on the block with the first color TV, all the other kids come to your house to watch it. Same with MTV. It’s that cool. It’s theirs, the kids’, it belongs to them. I came up with a campaign for a breakfast cereal called Maypo. We had sports stars like Mickey Mantle and Wilt Chamberlain saying, ‘I want my Maypo!’ This campaign is going to be a bunch of rock stars saying, ‘I want my MTV!’ Garland,” he goes, “can you get Mick Jagger to say that?” I go, “I think so.” He goes, “That’s who we got to get first. Mick Jagger is the most important rock star in the world. If we can get him to do it, the rest of them will be easy.” And I go, “I fucking love it.”
The others present were more cautious, but came around.
David Horowitz: The cable operators were so strong, you were warned not to go behind them to the public. That was a real no-no. They would break you if you did that. But it came to the point where we didn’t have a choice.
John Lack: We have this big powwow, and the question is “Do we go around the gatekeeper and go right to the customer?” ’Cause we knew this product was going to be hot with young people—we just had to get to them. But we couldn’t get to them without distribution, and, of course, these cable operators held the keys. After much agony, long hours of fighting, we decided to go for it.
Bob Pittman: This was a Hail Mary. ’Cause if it didn’t work, we were never going to make it.
The trick now was getting Jagger to agree.
Les Garland: We find out that Mick is touring in Paris and will see us. So we jump on a plane. It’s a gamble: we don’t know whether we are going to get Mick to do it or not. But we are in the hotel, ready to meet. Truth be told, I disappeared for a day and a half, and found a couple of women that were just so much fun. If I have the time, I will rock. Anyway, the phone call comes. I go to Mick’s room, and went into the rap: We were about to embark upon this campaign, and he being who he is, it was vitally important that he say yes to my request. Which is that he agrees to us shooting him the next day saying, “I want my MTV!” He says, “I don’t do commercials.” I say, “I prefer to look at it as more of an endorsement for a new phenomenon called music video. We just happen to be the only venue that plays them.” He goes, “It’s still a commercial.” I go, “If you were paid, does that change it?” And he goes, “Well …” So I say, “All right, Mick,” and I reach into my pocket, pull out a dollar bill, and lay it on the table. And I say, “Will you take it?” He starts laughing and says, “Garland, I’ll do it.” The next day, we do the shoot and then hightail it back to New York, where Sykes is, dialing in rock stars left and right. Pete Townshend and David Bowie and Pat Benatar and John Cougar—we have a bunch of them in the can. We had the campaign on TV within 14 days.
The impact of the $2 million ad blitz in March 1982 was instant and overwhelming.
Bob McGroarty: I got calls from cable operators saying, “Take those spots off the air! We are getting flooded with phone calls and it’s screwing up our business!” I said, “Oh, really?” and called Dale Pon and said, “Put more spots on.”
John Lack: We bought $300,000 worth of airtime in Denver, where TCI is, and we blew Denver away: “I want my MTV! I want my MTV!” The phones rang like it was an avalanche. After two weeks, Malone calls and says, “I give.”
Tom Freston: We’d go in and attack a town and we’d run like three or four weeks of this advertising and the phones would ring off the hook and every cable operator in the market would add the service. And we’d be off to another city. We were rolling across the country and adding a million subs a month. It was fantastic.
Les Garland: Before the campaign, we did a study of the target audience and found that the awareness factor—people who had seen MTV or heard of it—was just under 20 percent. Four weeks later, we do the same study. The recognition factor now is 89 percent.
The last bastion to fall was Time Inc.–owned Manhattan Cable.
Dale Pon: New York was hard. The “I Want My MTV” campaign would run periodically, but the guy who ran the system said, “The phone can ring all it wants. I don’t care. The other cable operators are just weak. I’m not going to be bullied or blackmailed. Don’t fuck with me. I’m not doing it.”
Jack Gault, president, Manhattan Cable: My 13-year-old son wanted his MTV. What teenage kid didn’t? But we clearly were the most important cable TV system in the country. I thought they should pay. They thought that was heresy. So the negotiation was protracted. Finally we got creative and came up with a deal where they would buy some of my unsold ad inventory.
To celebrate the deal, MTV executives hosted a party for cable operators at a tony Manhattan nightspot. To buck up the staff, which had been excluded, Garland came up with a counter.
Les Garland: I went to Pittman and said, “I want to do something really cool for the staff. Have a first-birthday party. Not real big.” He said, “Gar-man, neat idea, but we just can’t do it. Money is too tight. It wouldn’t look good corporately.” I’m pissed, so I get my department heads and said, “Guys, put together a party and don’t tell me anything.” One of them says, “Gar-man, where are we going to get the money?” I’m like, “Please, give me a break. Surely each of you can find a few thousand dollars in your budget and make it look like something else. I mean, we aren’t beginners here.” I start hearing rumblings in the hallways: This thing is going to be a blowout. I’m still playing dumb, but at some point they come to me and say, “Garland, we are really struggling for a theme.” I said, “What’s more fun than gambling?” They find some unbelievable location, and the night of the party I show up at 10:30, and the kids are having a ball. Everyone’s got a wad of fake money—my face is on it, it’s Garland money—and there are prizes—TVs and stereo systems and motorcycles and all kinds of shit—and everybody is getting hammered. “Speech, speech,” they are saying. I get up on the stage half snockered and go into my best Bob Pittman imitation. And who do I see in the audience? Bob Pittman. He says to me, “We’ll deal with this Monday.” All weekend I’m going, I’m outta here. Monday morning, I’m sitting in my office, and Dwight Tierney, who’s in charge of human relations, calls. I think, Oh, shit, here we go, they’re blowing me out. I say, “You want me to bring my lawyer?” He says, “What are you talking about? All we need to know is where you got the prizes. Other than that, no problem.” That’s why I love Pittman.
With MTV airing in New York and Los Angeles by the turn of the year, everyone was breathing relieved sighs—and encountering sudden celebrity.
Martha Quinn: J.J. and I were walking down 57th Street, and a homeless guy lying in a doorway looks up, and says, “Hey, aren’t you Martha Quinn?” We said, “Yeah, how’s it going?” We walk away and I say to J.J., “How’s that guy have cable?”
Jordan Rost: When I worked for NBC and wore my logo baseball cap, no one cared. I’d wear an MTV jacket, and I couldn’t get three blocks without being asked four times, “You really work for MTV?”
Gale Sparrow: When people like Elton John started calling to say, “Can I be a guest V.J.?,” you knew we were making it. Everyone wanted to come on board. People weren’t calling about their lower acts—they were calling about their main acts. It was like, “Do you have room for an interview?” I had a staff of eight, and we couldn’t even cover the calls. We were getting 250 a day.
Nick Rhodes, keyboardist, Duran Duran: We’d go over to their studio several times a week whenever we were in Manhattan. Andy Warhol was a friend of ours and we took him down there. He loved it. Just sat taking photographs the whole time of absolutely nothing. But Andy was thrilled to see what the MTV experience was all about.
Judy McGrath: We got Motörhead to tape an MTV I.D. At the shoot, Sykes was saying, “I want you to say, ‘Hi, I’m Lemmy from Motörhead, and you’re watching MTV.’ ” The camera rolled, and Lemmy said, “This is Motörhead, and if you don’t watch MTV, I’m coming to your house and rip up your lawn and tear your poodle’s head off.” We run this thing, and all of a sudden I am getting calls from Steve Tyler and Tina Turner saying, “Hey, I want to do one of those.” And I thought, You do?
MTV’s corporate parent, Warner Amex, meanwhile, was posting heavy losses, in part because the Movie Channel was taking a clobbering at the hands of Cinemax, a competing “flanker brand” recently released by HBO. Fed up, American Express persuaded Ross to sell most of the Movie Channel to Viacom, and ousted Warner Amex’s C.E.O. The new chief was Ronald Reagan’s transportation secretary Drew Lewis, who’d shown his tough-mindedness by firing the nation’s striking air-traffic controllers. The first casualty at MTV was Lack, who left in January 1983. McGroarty departed shortly thereafter. Though Schneider remained in his post, MTV’s master was now Bob Pittman.
Brian Diamond: Physically, Bob wasn’t around much, but everybody felt his presence. The running joke was that Bob would call and say, “Get the plants off the set.” Three days later: “Put the plants back on the set.” It was like, “Oh, my God, Big Brother’s watching. We can’t get away with anything anymore.” We all knew who was driving the ship.
Tom Freston: Bob made the old suits at Warner and Amex feel comfortable that they were in good hands with a smart guy who was ready to exploit popular culture in a smart way. He had a relentless focus on “What does the consumer really want? If we get into his head, everything else kind of comes together.”
Gale Sparrow: Pittman lost his eye when he was a child, and Garland lost his eye when he was at MTV because they sent him the wrong medication, and John Sykes had a sort of an astigmatism, though the rumor was that he would have knocked out both his eyes if he had to. One day, I came down with an eye inflammation. Pittman looked at me and said, “Gale, I always knew you were executive material.”
Fred Seibert: One night we are at a company retreat out at the end of Long Island, and eight or nine of us end up in a rental car. Everyone is sitting on someone else’s lap, including Bob, who’s in the backseat behind Dwight Tierney, who’s driving. It’s dark. There are no streetlights anywhere. Bob reaches up and puts his hands over Dwight’s eyes. “Keep driving,” he says. We’re all thinking, God, we are going to die. Bob goes, “Aw, we did this in Mississippi all the time.” The woman who is sitting next to me says, “That’s what I like about him. He’s fearless.”
Pittman would need courage to handle MTV’s finances. In two years on the air, the channel had racked up a reported $33.9 million in losses and was projected to lose $20 million more in 1983. Lewis had other ideas.
Bob Pittman: Drew Lewis took me out to lunch and said, “Bob, either you get the loss down to $12 million or we’re going to shut it down.” So we had to start whacking everything to make it happen.
Mark Booth: Penetration of cable was modest, ad sales were modest, expenses were high. Warner Amex was saying, “Either you crack the economics or you’re gone. We’re not the Salvation Army.”
Doug Herzog, director, MTV News: All of a sudden, every dime was being watched. The whole idea was to see what we can do for nothing.
David Hilton, head of affiliate sales and marketing: It went from being “Can we do this?” to “How can we make it profitable?”
To Pittman and Horowitz, it was evident that neither cost-cutting nor ad revenues would be sufficient to lift MTV from the red.
Bob Pittman: No one in the cable business had been successful being entirely advertiser-supported. If we were ever going to make any money, we had to get the cable operators to pay.
David Horowitz: That’s when it hit the fan. The attitude of the cable operators was that we were damned lucky they were letting us onto their systems.
Mark Booth: We went back and said, “This isn’t going to work out the way it’s been working. Here’s our new rate card—10 cents per home per month—and we will give you a much better deal now than if you wait.” The cable industry saw that if they wanted to have a more robust content community, they needed to re-distribute the wealth. We basically created a strategy that enabled everyone to win.
John Reardon, vice president, national accounts: Mark Booth and I walked out the door of a cable operator in Colorado after doing our first contract. And right there in the parking lot, we jumped up in the air and slapped hands, and said, “Jesus God, we are actually going to get money for this thing!”
While cable operators were having their arms twisted, MTV was coming under increasing fire for its nearly all-white playlist. The most vocal critic was “Slick” Rick James. After MTV passed on his “Super Freak” video, he publicly accused the channel of “taking black people back 400 years,” setting off a torrent of charge and countercharge.
John Sykes: Racism was the furthest thing from our minds. We were trying to build a very narrowly focused channel, just like radio. The problem was, we were the only game in town, so the media was expecting us to be like traditional TV and put on all things for all people. From everything we’d learned in radio, that didn’t work. No one from the country community was picketing out front, saying, “Why aren’t you playing country artists?”
Tom Freston: If you look at who was making rock music in those days, it was pretty much white boys with guitars. There were some black artists who got rotation on MTV, but not many, because there weren’t a lot of black artists playing rock ’n’ roll. When clips came in, the programming guys were a bit overly religious on the issue. The playlist was a lot stricter than it had to be, because we really didn’t have any competition out there.
Charles M. Young, writer, promotions and shows: I was coming home on the subway wearing my MTV jacket, and this black kid comes up to me, and he was so excited. He wanted to work at MTV; he just loved it. We got off at the same stop, and we talked about MTV all the way to my apartment. I went in feeling so rotten that there was no black music on MTV. I thought, God, this is completely unfair.
Carolyn Baker, director of talent acquisitions: MTV was supposed to be a white-boys’ channel, and it was really set in stone. I’m black, and Rick would talk to me about it, Stevie Wonder would, Teddy Pendergrass would, Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson would. But it was not a subject that I ever really talked about at MTV. But it did come up with Bob when he wouldn’t let me buy a long James Brown piece. He said, “My audience doesn’t think that rock ’n’ roll came from James Brown; they believe it came from the Beatles.”
J. J. Jackson: I was sent to cover a birthday party Bill Cosby was throwing for Miles Davis. We sit down and Miles looks me dead straight in the eyes and says, “Tell me, young man, how come MTV doesn’t play any black videos?” I said, “Well, at this point, our format is rock ’n’ roll, and Jimi Hendrix didn’t make any videos. We don’t play Elvis Presley, either, and some people consider him the father of rock ’n’ roll. Or Dwight Yoakam, or any of those people. Believe me, if I thought they weren’t playing black artists because they were black, there’s no way in hell I would be their patsy for that.” He looked at me for like 20 seconds—man, it felt like a lifetime—and said absolutely nothing. Finally, he went, “Very good, young man.”
Mark Goodman: People would say, “Pittman’s from the South. What do you expect?” But I bought the corporate line, which was MTV is like rock radio. Rock radio would not be playing the Temptations or James Brown. We play rock artists. Then Let’s Dance came out, and I sat down to interview David Bowie. He had a camera crew with him, and heavy executives were standing around, watching. I said, “Get ready, because I’ve got all the tough questions lined up for you.” David said, “Good, because I want to ask you some punishing questions.” I chuckled, not knowing what he had in store. After the interview, he asks me, “Why do you think MTV doesn’t play black music?” I said, “We try to play music for a particular type of demographic and genre.” He said, “What about all the black kids?” I said, “You got to talk to MTV about that.” I got hung out to dry.
Pittman refused to budge. Then, in January 1983, Michael Jackson released a single from his new album, Thriller. “Billie Jean,” an up-tempo pop tale of the travails brought on by a trumped-up paternity charge, bulleted onto the Billboard Hot 100. A video soon followed, but despite its quick climb to No. 1 and intensive lobbying from CBS Records, “Billie Jean” received no airplay on MTV. Why it was finally added to the channel’s rotation is hotly disputed.
David Benjamin, vice president for business affairs, CBS Records: I was sitting in my office, and Susan Blond, who was in charge of videos at Epic, came in, in tears. She says, “We just spent all this money on Michael Jackson’s video. It’s brilliant, but they won’t play it.” Immediately, I call Pittman; he’s in a meeting. Then I call Garland; he’s busy. Then I call Sykes; he picks up. “John,” I say, “the fickle finger of fate is pointed at you. I am now invoking the 24-hour kill clause in our contract. By tomorrow at this time I want every CBS video off MTV.” I walk to the other side of the floor to tell Walter Yetnikoff what I’ve done, and his secretary Bonnie is laughing. “What the fuck did you do? Pittman just called and he’s going crazy.” Walter waves me in, and he’s laughing, too. “David,” he says to me, “look who’s on the phone. Our good friend Bob Pittman.” “No kidding,” I say. “Yes,” Walter says. “He says that all we had to do was call and ask. Of course they would play the video. No problem.” “Gee, I’m sorry, Walter,” I say. “That’s O.K.,” Walter says. “But in future you just call up Bob. He’ll do whatever we want.”
Les Garland: “Billie Jean” came in, and it blew my mind. The whole staff flipped over it. I phoned Pittman, who was in California, and said, “Bob, I’m FedExing the most amazing video to you. Wait till you see it.” He calls the next day, and he’s like, “God, this is great.” I said, “There is no question here, is there?” He says, “You do what you want to do.” I said, “You know what I am going to do.” And he says, “Fine.” The problem was, we waited three or five days to put it on, ’cause of whatever, and someone misinterpreted it as us holding back. The next thing you know, this whole thing with CBS blows up. We’re looking at each other, saying, “Where did this thing come from?”
“Billie Jean” was followed by “Beat It,” and both were among the most popular videos in MTV history. Their repeated airing helped propel Thriller to sales of 800,000 per week, and prompted CBS Records to commission the title cut as the third video from the album. Directed by John Landis of Blues Brothers fame, “Thriller” ran an unprecedented 14 minutes and cost an equally unprecedented $1.1 million—more than 20 times the most expensive video to date. Yet another precedent was shattered when Pittman agreed to pay $250,000 for first-air rights, the expenditure disguised as a cost of a “making of” documentary. While shooting was in progress, Garland visited the set.
Les Garland: I’m invited to Michael’s trailer. I’m waiting in the living room when all of the sudden a pair of socks comes flying out from this dark room in the back and lands at my feet. His assistant says, “That means Michael is ready to see you.” So I pick up his socks and go back. He’s lying down and I sit and we talk for an hour. He said, “Garland, I just want to thank you so much for everything you’ve done through MTV to support my career.” I said, “Stop, man, I am the guy who should be saying ‘Thank you’ to you for making such great music for such great videos.” When “Thriller” came out, we’d play it two or three times a day. We also pre-promoted every time it was going to play, and every time it did, it spiked the ratings. That’s when we knew that event programming would work within the confines of what we were doing at MTV.
MTV, which had already made the careers of Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper, and Duran Duran, would fuel other made-for-video mega-stars, none brighter—or more controversial—than the Material Girl.
John Sykes: The first time I met Madonna was at Café Un Deux Trois on 44th Street. She was very quiet and very controlled and kind of was letting her attitude be known. Which was this kind of street-smart, tough woman who wanted to do business. She had like a Screaming Mimi’s kind of retro outfit on, a little veil over her face. She wanted to find out what we were doing and talk to us about her music. But she was very guarded and wasn’t going to offer her friendship that easily. Basically, she was setting her image with us that we were going to have to come to her. She knew exactly how to package herself, exactly how much to give each time, exactly how to make the look as important as the sound. She really represented, along with Michael Jackson, the beginning of a new video generation. A lot of artists that only cared about the look, or only cared about the sound, never made the transition and kind of went by the wayside. But she understood the balance.
Gale Sparrow: She had one video, a disco-like thing, called “Electric” something, and she asked if, as a favor, we’d play it late at night, so she could watch it herself. We weren’t sure, because it really wasn’t our format. But Garland said, “She’s so sexy, let’s just play it really late or early in the morning and Pittman will never know.” But Pittman did watch, and every now and then he’d call Garland and say, “Bud, what’s going on? You guys are getting out of line.” But the channel was looking nice, and Pittman let us do it. And, boy, did that favor pay off. Because her next video was—wow!—night-and-day better. We played the hell out of that. “Borderline” was next and Madonna was a star. That’s when everything started changing. It wasn’t just AOR music. It was a little more pop. The image became as important as the music.
Marcy Brafman: We fought about putting Madonna on. There was this feeling that she was too pop, too dance-music, and we weren’t about dance music. When her stuff took hold, it changed something in not a good way. It became more glitz and showbizzy. It was not that free, wildness-of-youth, born-to-raise-hell kind of rock ’n’ roll. It was engineered. It was entertainment.
Jeff Ayeroff, creative director, Warner bros. Records: Madonna was the first act I worked with at Warner, and I was wheeling and dealing with Sykes and Gale Sparrow, saying, “This girl is going to be the biggest star on MTV.” They got her right away, but they didn’t get her music right away, so they were sort of hesitant. We did a series of videos, and one of them—where she’s this street girl who gets picked up by the photographer and she spray-paints his car—started the phenomenon. They realized they had something that brings their audience to them. She was the right person, the right artist, the right product, at the right time. Madonna fed them, and they fed her. They went hand in hand together.
The success of Madonna and Michael Jackson sent video-production costs spiraling, enraging record-company executives and artists alike. The airwaves, meanwhile, were filling up with music-video shows, hoping to ape MTV’s exploding popularity. To stanch the competition on the one hand, and placate the record companies on the other, Pittman began offering labels payments for hot videos in return for “windows of exclusivity.” Under pressure from increasingly vocal interest groups, as well as image-nervous American Express, MTV also began cracking down harder on video content.
Stan Cornyn: We gave Madonna a video to do, and the cost was going to be $10,000. Then the producer says, “We want to shoot it in Italy, so it’s going to be 25.” Madonna is starring for us, so we come up with the 25. Well, the whole thing ends up at $100,000. At this point, the management of record companies are shitting cornerstone-size bricks.
Bob Summer: One video we did for George Michael was something in excess of a low-budget movie. The artists were demanding it, and if you didn’t have a video available at the time of launch, you weren’t competitive. It’s that simple. The all-powerful record companies found themselves in the position of being leveraged by the MTV gang.
Bob Krasnow, president, Elektra Records: We were spending $300,000 on a video more often than not. And I started seeing a very subtle change in the bands. All of the sudden, they were starting to realize that they couldn’t go out in this national format with bellies. They needed to take care of their whole appearance. They were getting slimmed down, more muscular. Appearance became important. People were realizing, “Hey, this is a professional business we’re in that’s grossing millions of dollars.” The whole mentality of how we approached our business was changing dramatically.
Billy Idol: You saw the big guns move in on MTV. Suddenly, you were competing on a level that was ridiculous. People like Michael Jackson moved everything up. Instead of $200,000, it was $2 million. It stopped the homegrown effect—it became video hell.
Stan Cornyn: MTV asking for exclusives was another astonishing, throw-them-out-of-the-office thing to do. The ballsiness of these guys. I sometimes thought that maybe that’s why Horowitz and Pittman wore glasses—so they wouldn’t get hit too badly.
Bob Krasnow: It was a small amount of money, but the point was, MTV was actually paying us, which was a lot better than us paying disc jockeys to play our records. This was a total turnabout. You had to grovel to get your records played on most radio stations, and here was this huge new idea—actually cultivating relationships.
Tim Newman, video director for ZZ Top: It pissed everybody off. The labels had a chance to encourage competition. Instead, they delivered themselves into the hands of MTV, which was a winner. It changed the whole game.
Jack Schneider: There was one Mick Jagger thing, where you opened a refrigerator and there were decapitated heads. I?said, “What? I can’t put that on the air.” “Well, you must,” I was told, “because if you don’t, Mick said he’s never going to give us anything again.” “In a pig’s ass,” I said. “Mick will give us anything we want, because we sell records.”
Jo Bergman, video-department head, Warner Bros. Records: Anything that Standards and Practices decided was a little too risqué, had too much flesh, would get kicked back for recut. You had to go frame by frame because somebody thought they saw the shadow of a nipple. There was crying in the editing rooms. Tempers were raw.
Billy Idol: Pressure groups started to look in on what you were doing, and say, “Oh, you offended women’s liberation,” or whatever. In the beginning, you could have a lighted cross behind you, and people didn’t think you were trying to be the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t being taken quite so seriously. Now MTV wanted to control more and more what you said. You were getting, “People should do this in videos, they shouldn’t do that.”
More changes were in the offing, after MTV and Nickelodeon were listed as a publicly traded company, MTV Networks Inc., in the summer of 1984, with Warner Amex retaining a controlling interest. The first alteration was the removal of Jack Schneider, and the naming of David Horowitz as president and C.E.O. A move that caused far more internal consternation was the lopsided award of stock options. Corporate behavior was now the order of the day.
Chip Rachlin, director of long-form acquisitions: Bob got 100,000 shares, vice presidents and above 10,000 shares, and then it dropped for everybody else to 25 shares for every year of service. When you’ve got people in their 20s and early 30s really into what they are doing, not looking at the clock and giving you everything they’ve got—I felt that didn’t translate.
Dom Fioravanti: Going public made you realize that MTV was more than just fun—it was a big-money game. There was intense pressure every day: how we spent and managed our money; issues of ratings and demographics; how we were going to hit certain targets in order to satisfy the financial community. The ad-sales people, of course, were always interested in making money. But the programming people—it was difficult to get them to recognize that a corner had been turned, and that this was now a business, which needed to go in some direction other than just plain fun. That was my mission from Bob Pittman. I was supposed to be the one to provide maturity to the playpen, so to speak. It was almost sad, because it had started off in a very innocent way—all these young kids, and all they wanted to do was create art and participate in this incredible phenomenon. But when the money began to flow, it went 180 degrees in the other direction. This was the rock ’n’ roll generation grown up.
Marcy Brafman: People were jockeying for positions and power. It was as if suddenly there was a realization that there was something to protect. The minute that happens, it kills the entrepreneurial edge that drives something. I noticed the change in lots of ways: the number of people who had to approve creative; the chances we were willing to take with the statements we made; the second-guessing on almost everything. They wanted everything to be corporate. It stopped wanting to be new.
Andy Setos: Everything started to get out of hand when we made money. Because then everyone realized that whoever holds on the hardest gets a lot. That’s when it got dark—when the building was over, more or less, and we were much more into a maintenance mode.
Dwight Tierney, head of personnel, wasec: I was in a meeting one day with an executive who professed long and loudly—more than any other exec in the company—about the importance of decency to people, how people were the most important thing and blah, blah, blah. And I said to her, “Look, I’ve got to talk to you about one of your execs. She humiliated a new hire in the hallway, screamed and yelled at her in public. It was absolutely appalling.” And this executive said to me, “Yeah, but did you see the numbers she brought in?” I thought to myself, Things are really changing.
Gale Sparrow: My old boss, the nicest guy in the world, learned he’d been fired when he came to work and found that all his belongings had been moved out of his office. My new boss calls me in and says, “Gale, you’ve been way too kind to these record company people. We have to play hardball. We want only the biggest acts, and we aren’t going to play anymore of this little bullshit stuff.” I said, “This ‘little bullshit stuff’ put us on the map.” I think about it for a week, decide I’m not buying it, that it’s time to leave. I tell my boss and he says, “You must have PMS.” I say, “I’m outta here.”
Alan Hunter: We’d been loose as a goose for three or four years. There was nothing I couldn’t do, no irreverence I couldn’t be involved in. If I wanted to pick my nose on-air, I knew I could. Then one day we found we couldn’t be little kids anymore. Bob wanted more respectability for the channel. So we were sent to this communication lady, who’d coached George Bush and Dan Rather and heavy-duty people like that. We’d sit down with her and go through our little tapes. I might have made some offhand remark, like “Check that out.” She’d stop the tape and go, “Alan, we need to work on your full-sentence skills.” We did this for an hour every week for six months. It drove you crazy.
Jo Bergman: Periodically MTV would have meetings to pump you up about the new acts you were coming out with. Somehow, I got the wrong invitation—not to the label pump-you-up meeting, but to the advertiser pump-you-up meeting. It had nothing to do with music. The focus was on “You should be buying time with us, because we are going to deliver the demographics, whatever it takes.” That was whipping a Band-Aid from the eyes. We felt we were inventing something new. It turned out we were actually making commercials.
But MTV could still put on a great show. That was demonstrated in September 1984, when, in an extravaganza featuring Tina Turner, Huey Lewis and the News, Rod Stewart, and channel queen Madonna, the first annual MTV Video Music Awards were staged at Radio City Music Hall.
Les Garland: Up until a week before the show, Madonna didn’t know what kind of a set she wanted. But one day she calls and goes, “Garland, I’ve got it. I want a tiger. I want to lay around and sing ‘Like a Virgin’ to the tiger.” I said, “I don’t think we can do that at Radio City. If that tiger went nuts and ate Walter Yetnikoff, I’ve got a fucking problem.” She died laughing, and I said I’d check it out. I did, and I call her back and say they are not going to let us have any tigers at Radio City. So she comes back with a 17-foot cake we only had five days to build for her. It threw us overbudget, that frigging cake. At rehearsal, she’s climbing up the cake and has on this wedding thing with nothing else on underneath. I’m standing below her and looking up, and going, “Hmmm … ” She looks down and says, “How does my butt look?” “Looks good from down here,” I say.
Andy Setos: Midtown Manhattan was MTV for that evening. There were limos up and down Sixth Avenue—it was just un-freaking-believable. It was the ticket in town.
Beverly Weinstein: Everybody wanted to go: every advertiser in the world, every client in the world. I was thinking, Whoa, look at this. We are a big deal.
John Reardon: All the cable operators are in their tuxedos, and their wives are dressed to the nines, and they’re not believing what they’re seeing: Mayor Koch with a gloved hand, acting like Michael Jackson, Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd in their space suits. My wife and I are sitting in the fourth row, pinching ourselves. Then Madonna comes out in a wedding dress with a jeweled boy toy belt and lies down on the stage and is humpin’ up and down, singing “Like a Virgin.” I’m saying to myself, Oh my God, what are the cable operators thinking? But I didn’t lose a single customer. They talked about that night forever.
In the midst of the gaiety, MTV was girding for war. Ted Turner, who’d been railing that MTV’s “satanic” videos threatened to transform the nation’s teenagers into “Hitler Youth,” unveiled plans to launch his own cable music network—this one to be offered free to cable operators. To lead the “Cable Music Channel,” Turner selected Scott Sassa, now the West Coast president of NBC, who had run Night Tracks, a weekly music-video show on Turner’s TBS.
Scott Sassa: Ted calls me into his office, points a finger at me, and says, “How old are you?” I say, “Twenty-five.” He says, “You are about to become the youngest person to ever run a network. How does it feel?” Ted never had a problem with sex on TV; it was violence. Twisted Sister, for instance, had a video where they threw some kid’s father out the window. We decided we were going to be family video. The announcement was in August. We launched in November.
MTV struck back with a fierce, all-fronts campaign, which included relegating performers who provided videos to Turner to the bottom of the playlist, or barring them from the channel altogether.
Tom Freston: We used every trick we could find, because basically he was attempting to put us out of business. If he could destroy our economics by making his service available for free and having people dump us, we were over. Because if you don’t have distribution in this business, you don’t have a business.
Dwight Tierney: First of all, he called us “satanic.” Then, when he launches on TV, he pushes a button and says, “Take that, MTV!” He unleashed the gods when he did that. Our affiliate sales and marketing guys just went nuts. You’re talking about a religious crusade. They worked 16, 20 hours a day, because they were not going to lose.
John Shaker: Ted Turner to that point had never had a failure. When he set his sights on MTV, we realized we were fighting the programming gorilla. We were told, “This is it. Beat Turner or we’re finished.” The message was in our blood. We were fighting for our lives.
As the battle heated up, MTV wheeled out the ultimate anti-Turner weapon, with its plan to launch “VH1” (for “video hits”), an adult-oriented clone of Turner’s new network. It would also be offered to cable operators without charge.
Bob Pittman: Before MTV, I was at the Movie Channel, which was going great guns until suddenly one day HBO announced this thing called “Cinemax.” So I learned about flanker brands; they’d almost killed the Movie Channel. We decided to do the same thing. Instead of MTV fighting with the Cable Music Channel, we started another service, called “VH1,” to do battle. It was our Cinemax.
Kevin Metheny, director of programming: We picked three musical genres that wouldn’t cannibalize MTV: R&B, country, and adult contemporary. We’d have Tony Bennett, followed by Kool and the Gang, followed by Willie Nelson; the Judds, followed by Latoya Jackson, followed by Air Supply. It was very odd, and it didn’t work, but the point with VH1 was to monopolize shelf space, rather than create a successful entity.
Marcy Brafman: Around the office, we were saying that an MTV person and a VH1 person have the same Jimi Hendrix poster. The MTV person has it sort of ripped and wrinkled and curled up at the edges, and it’s stuck to his wall with thumbtacks of different colors. The VH1 person has it in a frame with glass.
MTV’s tactics achieved the desired results: about a month after it went on the air in 1984, Turner folded the Cable Music Channel and unloaded its assets to MTV for a token $1 million.
David Horowitz: We were at the cable Ace Awards, and I heard a familiar, hoarse voice yelling, “Dave! Dave!” I looked around and there’s Ted. He pulled a white handkerchief out of his breast pocket and got down on his knees and waved it in front of my face. “Dave,” he said, “you beat our ass.”
Kevin Metheny: One of the affiliate-relations guys had black buttons made with white text on them. The copy read something like “696:59:59.” We passed them out at the cable show. People would say, “What’s the 696:59:59?” It was the number of hours, minutes, and seconds that Ted Turner’s Cable Music Channel was on the air.
American Express, however, had tired of MTV.
James Robinson III: This was a very different business than what American Express was all about. Because of the programming, we were also getting a lot of flak—and we are supposed to be a financial-services company, with all of the proper imaging that goes with that. So both the board and some of the senior management within Amex were concerned—in some instances beyond the point I thought justified. But I had to agree that this was not core and central, and therefore not a proper allocation of manpower and capital, relative to the other things that the company should be doing.
In June 1985, American Express opened talks to sell its stake in Warner Amex to Warner Communications. Warner, in turn, negotiated to sell MTV to Viacom, purchaser of the Movie Channel. Alarmed at the prospect of being owned by the notoriously tightfisted media conglomerate, Pittman and Horowitz found financing to mount a senior-management-led leveraged buyout from Theodore Forstmann’s investment firm, Forstmann Little & Co. As the dickering over terms with Warner got under way, an Irish rocker named Bob Geldolf was laying final plans for a gargantuan benefit concert to aid the victims of famine in Ethiopia. The July 13 event was christened “Live Aid.” MTV televised the entire proceedings.
Joan Myers, les garland’s secretary: The first interview of the day was Jack Nicholson. Mark Goodman asked him some questions. And all Jack says is “I sure wish I knew how to play guitar.”
Brian Diamond: After Jack, everything was cake. Mark Gastineau of the Jets was there; we talked to him. The Pretenders, Phil Collins—got them. All kinds of characters were running around backstage. I went up to the Beach Boys’ manager, explained what we wanted, and he said, “Hang on a sec.” He then sits down on a bench and puts his arm around Brian Wilson and says, “O.K., Brian, we are going to do this interview, and we are going to feel good about this interview.” I was like, “Wow!”
Joan Myers: The only one who wasn’t very cool was Madonna. She had tons of people around her saying, “Don’t look at her.” We were all “Excuse me? I just had coffee with Bob Dylan and this one and that one, and she is saying, ‘Don’t look at me’?”
Tom Freston: It was great validation for us. ABC was there, but they telescoped everything into three hours, and our ratings were in line with theirs. We were viewed as a real, legitimate player in the music and the media business. We were the centerpiece of a force in the culture. “Live Aid” took us up to a whole other level.
Sue Binford: That was a moment when you thought, This has gone beyond being a 24-hour music channel that is playing a lot of bands and selling a lot of records. That was a moment when you really appreciated where MTV was taking you.
The self-congratulation was brief. In late August a last-minute snag in the negotiations with Ross allowed Viacom to up the bidding and seize MTV.
John Sykes: We had the press release written up announcing the buyout, and we took one of the Forstmann brothers to the Springsteen concert at the Meadowlands to celebrate. And at the eleventh hour, Viacom came in and offered $525 million. We went back to Forstmann Little, and Teddy Forstmann said, “No cable channel is worth over half a billion dollars. We’re out.”
Tom Freston: The new owners came in, and the first thing they say is “We know that a lot of you have stock options and that you expect them to be paid out. We’re not sure that legally we have to do that.” Those were their first words. So, like, “Not only do you not know us, but we’re going to fuck you” was the message. Then it was like, “Whoa, this party is over.”
John Sykes: They spoke to us at a management retreat. It kind of felt like I was watching a Republican convention. Basically they said, “You’re a bunch of kids. We’re going to show you how to run this.” It was like having your grandfather telling you, “Do this, don’t do that.” At that point, we all knew we were gone.
Kevin Metheny: I guess if there was one big blinding glimpse of the obvious it was that the limo rides around the block were about to be over. It seemed like a good idea to take the check and go.
Many of those who’d created MTV did go, among them Sykes, Brafman, Brindle, Rachlin, and Garland. The original V.J.’s soon departed as well, and bit by increasing bit MTV replaced its all-video programming with a more traditional “show” format, covering aspects of the youth lifestyle beyond music. Ordering the initial changes was Bob Pittman, who replaced David Horowitz as MTV president and C.E.O. in December 1985. But after eight months Pittman resigned to embark on a high-profile career path that eventually led to his current position, president of America OnLine. Tom Freston took over Pittman’s duties at MTV, which received a welcome jolt of support when Sumner Redstone took over Viacom in June 1987. Freston continues as C.E.O. of MTV Networks, a multibillion-dollar combine that transmits in 12 languages and includes Nickelodeon, VH1, and Country Music Television (CMT). In 1994, Sykes returned to lead a top-to-bottom renovation of VH1, where he remains as president. Under the leadership of another veteran of the old days, Judy McGrath, the MTV mother ship recently launched “MTV2,” whose programming is close to that of the channel that changed the culture, one minute past midnight, August 1, 1981.
John Lack: I said one time, “Guys, you are going to get up on a wave, and this baby is going to roll a long way. Because we are onto something here that this country is going to jump on. So don’t fuck this up, we have a big one ahead of us.” And they believed it—because if you looked on the screen, it was the most exciting thing you ever saw. It was television that didn’t look like television. This was rock ’n’ roll. And for my generation, rock ’n’ roll was our passion, our poetry, really. I mean, “Desperado” is still as good as anything in any poetry book. Who said, “You better let somebody love you before it’s too late”? Wasn’t Shakespeare, wasn’t Yeats, it was Don Henley. You better let somebody love you before it’s too late. That was this generation.
Robert Sam Anson is a Vanity Fair contributing editor.