Memory tells me I watched from the beginning as MTV debuted 40 years ago today, on Aug. 1, 1981. A little research proves otherwise.
In Green Bay, my cable system didn’t show MTV that first day. Its programmers said they’d watch MTV off air and then decide whether to carry it. They didn’t add it until the last week of July 1982, almost a year after MTV’s debut. By then, I’d moved to Madison, where it was August 1982 before MTV was added to the local cable system.
Had I been living in the Green Bay suburbs, I’d have seen MTV sooner. The cable system serving the suburbs showed MTV that first day. However, it didn’t have the necessary equipment to air MTV in stereo and dropped MTV from its lineup. MTV returned to the suburban cable system in the spring of 1982.
Perhaps my memory of watching music videos 40 summers ago is that of “Night Flight,” which debuted on the USA Network in the summer of 1981. My cable system carried that.
Why the delays in bringing MTV to Green Bay?
Culturally speaking, MTV might as well have been beamed from another planet to the Green Bay, Wisconsin, of 40 years ago.
Practically speaking, both cable systems serving Green Bay at that time had only a 35-channel capacity. They had to make sure each channel was a sure thing.
At the beginning, MTV wasn’t a sure thing. Nor were many other cable networks back then. It seems almost unbelievable now, but even a year after MTV debuted, cable TV had made few inroads against local TV.
But MTV survived, especially after advertisers realized and tapped into the huge spending power of MTV’s young demographic.
I was part of that young demographic until I wasn’t, and that pretty much describes the arc of my passion for MTV.
I was 25 when I started watching MTV. Writing this, it turns out 1982 to 1985 were my peak MTV-watching years, a shorter time than I’d thought.
What I didn’t see, David Bowie saw. During an interview with VJ Mark Goodman in 1983, he called out MTV for not playing Black artists. That made news. It was a wake-up call for me. After that, I spent more time listening to the local indie radio station, which had a far more diverse and adventurous playlist.
Slowly, my passion for MTV waned. Regular programming started replacing music videos. That wasn’t my cup of tea. By the late ’80s, I’d grown up, gotten older, moved on. MTV had moved on, too, leaving behind a guy in his 30s.
Even so, MTV introduced me to many great artists not heard on the radio until they broke on MTV. If I had to pick three who I watched and then bought their records: Eurythmics, Bananarama and, yeah, Billy Idol. Also, I must confess I never quite got Talking Heads until I saw their videos. Then I got it.
My most memorable videos are the same as for lots of people: “Take on Me” by a-Ha and, of course, “Thriller” by Michael Jackson. But it was wonderful seeing videos by Dave Edmunds, one of my faves from long before there were videos.
Plus all those big global movements seen on MTV — Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in 1984 and then Live Aid, Farm Aid (I vividly remember Sammy Hagar, having just joined Van Halen, dropping F-bombs during the live broadcast), U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are The World” and the best and fiercest of them all, Artists United Against Apartheid’s “Sun City,” all in 1985.