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How MTV became MTV

Liam Curley
Liam Curley
9 min read
How MTV became MTV

The Background

It's 1979, Alien and Apocalypse Now have hit the big screen, and in music, Michael Jackson launches his solo career with 'Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough.' It's also the year that WASEC (Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company) hired Bob Pittman.

MTV hire Bob Pittman

WASEC are growing their portfolio of cable channels. John Lack (COO) and Jack Schneider (CEO) believed that cable TV would grow as a network of niche stations, similar to radio. So, they hired Bob Pittman, a young programmer at NBC radio, to programme their TV channels as he would radio, starting with the Movie Channel.

Bob followed the remit by showing the most popular movies on repeat throughout the day and the less popular ones once or twice per week.

WASEC research suggested that the audience wasn't satisfied with other movie and cable channels going off at 2 am. They wanted round the clock, 24-hour scheduling. Whether they were repeated or not didn't matter. Similar to how Netflix would later build their streaming business, the early emphasis was on creating a new format to deliver more content with immediate access, rather than improve the offering of the content itself.

The Movie Channel reformatted to deliver 24-hour movies. As a result, customer numbers jumped from 300,000 to 2 million in less than a year.

WASEC relaunch Movie Channel

The next channel they wanted to transform was for children's TV. It was named Pinwheel but would relaunch as Nickelodeon. Following that, they had plans to take the format and apply it to music.

Music shows with video clips weren't new. They were all across Europe. Top of The Pops was huge in the UK and blended 'live' performances with video clips. But as with the Movie Channel, WASEC wanted a 24-hour channel.

WASEC plan to launch music television

The Idea

The World was aware of video clips but perhaps not aware that artists had them for most singles released. If a band had a long-running number one, they didn't want to show up every week on Top of The Pops to perform. Equally, an artist with a big following in Australia couldn't fly there from the US every time they released a song, so they'd produce a video to launch.

Music labels had an archive of promotional videos

Through their network and radio background, the team at WASEC were aware that these films existed. Their dream was to create 24-hour 'video radio.' Radio stations didn't pay record labels to play music, so they envisaged using this same model. Just as radio had DJs, video radio would have VJs so that audiences could 'bond with a human being' between videos.

Radio had DJs, TV has VJs

The team pitched the concept to James D. Robinson III, CEO of American Express (who owned half of WASEC). Robinson's critical question was:

"Where in the devil do you get your raw material?"

Pittman explained that:

"Every time a group creates a new album, they make promotional films and give them away."

With that knowledge of free, underused content, the team were given $10 million to launch MTV, and Pittman would lead the team.

The Audience

Music wasn't the drive behind the initiative when pitching the MTV idea to the WASEC board. It was audience demographics.

At the time, there were no TV channels or shows that focused entirely on the "twelve-to-thirty-four-year-old demographic." The ability for advertisers to target specific niches was limited unless there was a cable channel dedicated to a particular demographic.

An unmet market for advertisers in the 12-34 age demographic in the 70s

MTV would be the first channel created for young adults, and WASEC forecasted that advertisers would form a queue to promote their product to a previously hard to reach audience.

Big Problem Number One

For MTV to succeed, there were two big problems that they needed to solve.

First, they needed record labels to provide their music videos for free. But also, for MTV to truly grow and become an attractive channel for young adults, they required labels to take video seriously and increase investment significantly to improve production.

This was a hard pitch. A music video was an unnecessary cost with no evidence to suggest it would improve the Label's bottom line. MTV needed data to show that music videos could increase record sales.

To make this more challenging, the most popular genre amongst young adults in Suburban US, the areas that bought cable TV, were traditional rock; bands like Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, and Deep Purple. These bands generally didn't have music videos.

MTV launched with new wave bands

MTV had to launch with bands that had videos, primarily new wave bands from the UK that looked and sounded completely different to the music the target audience enjoyed.

Some Labels pushed back and either wanted MTV to pay for the license to air videos or to hold back and see how competitor Labels were received before giving MTV access to their clips.

Nevertheless, MTV got some labels to allow the channel to play their videos for free, so they had material for launch.

Big Problem Number Two

MTV needed to get on cable TV, and in the late 70s and early 80s, cable was regulated at the state level, which meant it was a fragmented market. As these operators were primarily present in rural and suburban communities, they were conservative too.

As is always the case with new media, be it music, film, or video games, regulators feared that MTV would bring controversy and bad local press.

Cable TV was a fragmented market in the 1980s

These cable operators held monopolies in their region and controlled what went on TV. They had no incentive to introduce new channels other than financial. In the beginning, MTV didn't represent a compelling economic narrative, and rock music videos went against the rural conservative values of those making the decisions.

In the early days, cable operators had zero interest, and MTV was fighting a losing battle.

Solution Number One

MTV needed to connect music videos with young adults to succeed. Translate that, and they required licenses to air music videos and access to air videos to young adults via cable TV.

Although they didn't have the license to play all music videos, they had enough to make a start. What they didn't have was TV exposure because the vast majority of cable networks were rejecting MTV.

This would all change with an ingenious campaign. Amongst the MTV team, George Louis put it that it wasn't WASEC that owned MTV, it was 'the kids.' They felt a sense of ownership, and when "A young guy has MTV, all the kids on the block come over to watch it.”

Mick Jagger MTV endorsement gave them instant credibility

Louis wanted Les Garland to get in front of Mick Jagger, the biggest star in the World at the time, and persuade him to go on camera for a new MTV campaign.

Les Garland did get in front of Mick Jagger, and asked him:

"Will you go on camera and say, 'I want My MTV.'"

To this Jagger said:

"That's a commercial. The Rolling Stones don't do commercials."

Garland questioned this, saying:

"Well, that's not really true. I was at Atlantic when Jovan sponsored your tour."

To which, Jagger replied:

"Well, we got paid a lot of money for that."

Garland cheekily replied:

"So what you're saying is, you do commercials for money…Mick, we don't have any money. But if it's about money, I'll give you a dollar."

Mick Jagger laughed, then recorded the 'I Want My MTV' clip. They had the one big endorsement they needed.

With an endorsement from the biggest music star on the planet, MTV could go to every other artist, from Pat Bentar to David Bowie, and get them to record an ‘I Want My MTV’ clip, referencing the fact that Mick Jagger had just done one.

Sometimes you need to put in what seems to be an unjustifiably high volume of resources to make one big sale, or in this case, endorsement.

In isolation, one sale or endorsement may not directly merit the resource required to bring it in. But, it may provide the social proof and credibility to unlock all other prospects in the market. If that is the case, you need to consider the expense in this context.

Solution Number Two

MTV now had endorsements from the musicians, which would give them credibility with the audience. Now they needed to provide cable operators with a reason to take on MTV.

They decided to launch an advertising campaign in Denver, the HQ for TCI, one of the major cable operators. The campaign featured different musicians pitching the line, 'I Want My MTV.'

The 'I want my MTV' ad campaign

After one day with the Ad on-air, TCI receives more phone calls than they usually do in an average month. After the second day, they've received 5,000 calls, after which the regional papers print the story.

After a week of the campaign, and thousands of calls from young adults demanding the cable operator put on MTV, TCI called MTV to tell them they're going to offer the channel to customers, so pull the ad!

MTV begin rolling out the ad, city by city, with the same results. Local cable operators get hounded by people demanding MTV, to the point where they cave in just to put an end to the calls.

It doesn't take long for word to spread across the country. So, when MTV roll up to the next cable operator, the simple threat of airing the TV campaign is enough to get the operator to take on MTV.


MTV is now reaching audiences, but they have a limited music catalogue available to them. To grow, they need to gain access to all Labels. They also need to change the music industry's negative perception of videos.

Bob Pittman sends John Sykes and Tom Freeton, two MTV executives, to Tulsa, Oklahoma, a region where MTV had its highest concentration of subscribers.

The two excitedly report back that they'd been to a record store and discovered that the store recently sold out of the Tubes. The Tubes weren't touring the area, and the local radio stations weren't playing them yet either, but MTV was. The only possible cause behind the sales was exposure on MTV.

MTV exposure in the 1980s led to increased record sales

The executives then met with local radio stations, who said they were getting requests to play bands like Duran Duran and Stray Cats because listeners had discovered them on MTV.

This was precisely the data and impact that MTV needed, clear evidence that MTV exposure led to increased radio airplay and record sales. Before MTV, the only way a band like Duran Duran would access a new audience would be to tour from town to town. Now, MTV had evidence that Labels could grow across the US by simply providing videos to MTV.

With this evidence, Labels that were first resistant to providing MTV with videos for free began to change their minds.

The Tipping Point

MTV grew, but it was a bumpy ride, and the channel needed fresh investment several times to keep going. MTV needed substantially more significant audience figures than those of a startup channel to generate sufficient ad revenue. They required the numbers of an established channel to break even and then generate a profit.

Thriller changed the perception of video in the music industry

Whilst they'd convinced record labels that it was worth sending existing videos to MTV, it took time for record labels to invest serious money into video production. The tipping point for both MTV and music videos would be Thriller.

Michael Jackson gambled more than $1m of his own money, and MTV invested their own money into the video (The Making of Thriller) to produce a music video like no other. The phenomenal success changed the industry's perception of what video was worth. MTV was at the forefront, and from this point onwards, they'd made it!


All quotations, facts, and anecdotes in this article come from:

'I want my MTV : the uncensored story of the music video revolution', written by Rob Tannenbaum and Craig Marks.

If you enjoyed the story, and want to read more on how MTV became MTV, I recommend the book!