MTV Shakes Things Up
MTV didn’t spread that quickly at first. Cable TV spectrum was valuable, and limited with cable systems having about 20-30 channels at the time as typical in my area. That was up from the five channels we got over the air. When MTV went on the air in their Manhattan studios in August of 1981, no cable systems in NYC carried the channel. MTV owner Viacom actually had to build desire for this product that many cable system operators were unconvinced was worth carrying. Middle aged white men were the gatekeepers to the cable industry. It was not an easy sell. The “I Want My MTV” campaign managed to help the fledgling channel weather the storm of its difficult birth to quickly flourish.
My neighborhood was later to get cable TV, due to the underground electrical/phone conduit that made running cable more difficult than piggybacking on above-ground poles. It came in 1982, the same year my dad surprised me by purchasing a refurb ßetamax VCR at the Sears outlet for the then cheap price of $400-500. Trust me, I did not see that one coming! I imagined that VCRs were outside of the family budget and never once broached the subject with my father. Blank tapes were not cheap. $12.99 as we noted in the comments yesterday was still the norm. This was 1982. I would imagine that when the first VCRs went on sale in 1975 those tapes must have been $29.98 each [or more]!
MTV came some months later when I would try to see what channels were showing something interesting, only to discover that one of the blank channels on the unused upper end of the tuner was now playing music, but with no visual signal. I caught promos indicating that this was the MTV I’d read so much about in the pages of Billboard Magazine [the music industry journal that I read religiously while in college]. Then, one day in the fall of 1982, the channel was just there. I had a VCR and this was like being a drug addict with a 24/7 free supply. For the first three months, I had a tape cued in that deck at all times. Maybe even the first six months.
Early MTV was actually amazing. There was not that much to play, so they played a lot of obscure acts of the kind that I enjoyed. Mostly weirdos and arty bands were making them in that time period. Most of the industry was geared to UK bands, since they led the pack with video production, that meant that the great UK pop hits of the New Wave era were plentiful in comparison to…let say The Boss, who would not make a video for another year or so. So that meant that New Wave far outstripped any less interesting Rock Music at the time. It was a fascinating time to be a fan of New Wave music. As here was a new channel starving for something to fill the playlists and my favorite type of music just happened to be the deepest into music video production.
There were so few advertisers in that first six months, that MTV would have unsold commercial blocs one to two minutes long, filled with stock footage placeholders that had instrumental stock music running under it!! By 1983 the channel was popping. MTV had the youth buzz and was the hippest thing going. It was still a great way to experience most new bands coming up through the channels, but as I noted in the pages of Billboard, [which listed each week’s MTV video adds, and more importantly, the frequency with which you could expect to see them] the early desperate days of playing Slow Children clips [because they made one once…and it was there] was beginning to give away to playing a lot of pretty mainstream acts like Hall + Oates, who like many US pop stars and their labels, were responding to this new phenomenon.
As an American, I couldn’t help but to notice the effect on the incredibly conservative US radio industry! I have mentioned before, that labels were signing scads of new acts but that radio was completely conservative in adding new acts to their valuable airwaves. Better to give the people what they want – “Stairway To Heaven” five time a day! And they knew they wanted it by the market research they paid for. So the labels issued a lot of New Wave Samplers, usually at a loss-leader price to convince kids with a little pocket change to take a chance on these acts which were not getting airplay for love or money. Once MTV got its legs and became an industry force, the low-price sampler album went the way of the dodo.
All of a sudden, radio was starting to play some of my favorite bands which were “stars” on MTV. The channel formed a symbiotic relationship with Duran Duran, for example. They could not get enough “Double Duran,” as J.J. Jackson [MTV’s alpha veejay with a radio history as long as my arm] called them. The cult act from 1981 was, in the space of the three months that MTV couldn’t stop playing “Hungry Like The Wolf,” catapulted into the US top ten for at least three years. The interesting to see from a music fan perspective about MTV was that in America, radio broadcasting was a highly Balkanized operation. There were hundreds of individual radio stations. And before Ronald Reagan gutted the FCC’s stewardship of the telecom industries, there were hard limits on how many radio stations that one company could own. Diversity was still baked into the system.
Subsequently, local program directors ruled the roost as gatekeepers to the airwaves. A band that could be popular in one locale might have a 500 mile dead zone until the next market where they were also popular. This is what made “cracking America” so difficult for bands. America was large and the media was all commercially owned. Making for a lot of PDs to conquer if a band wanted to have success. In most other countries around the world, the airwaves were publicly, not privately owned. Media was run by the state and everyone in the UK saw the same bands on Top Of The Pops and thus the UK pop scene was far more dynamic than the bigger, but slower to react US media landscape.
What MTV delivered, via cable television, was the only national radio station America could offer at that time. This meant that bands with visual appeal and MTV cachet, could find themselves becoming huge. In some cases, in a matter of weeks. Then, in a tale wagging the dog scenario, the moribund US radio industry realized it had to get more responsive, which led to even the dull, downmarket FM Rock stations in my city actually playing bands I liked! I had not listened to the likes of WDIZ-FM for over three years, but by the spring of 1983, the writing was on the wall and I’ll never forget the one time I heard my favorite band of the time, Ultravox, played on “Rock 100!” MTV really shook things up.
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