1 August 1981: MTV goes on air

The Buggles: first video on MTV

Until the 1970s, most Americans solely watched free-to-view TV that was broadcast over the airwaves to an aerial. Networks were funded by advertising, so they focused on shows that appealed to as broad an audience as possible.

However, the growth of cable TV in the late 1970s allowed a new business model to develop, based on pay-TV channels where viewers paid a monthly subscription. This enabled the launch of television channels aimed at a smaller segment of the population.

Young music fans were one prominent example. While promotional music videos had been around in some form since the 1960s, they were a minor part of the music landscape, and confined to shows such as Top of the Pops in the UK. It was the new pop channel MTV that would make them part of mainstream culture.

MTV was founded by former radio announcer Robert Pittman, who came up with the idea after producing a music video show on a New York TV station. It launched in 1981, with the first video played on the channel being Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles.

MTV was an instant success, gaining two million viewers within less than a year. Two years after its launch it had ten million subscribers (its current global viewership is 320 million). Demand was so strong that it eventually split into several sub-channels, moving on from solely music videos to include cartoons and the first “reality” TV series. The rapid uptake of cable TV was key to its success. Today, only 7% of US households get their TV solely from over-the-air programming, with 83% subscribing to some form of pay-TV.

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