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Cover Story : Traveling Along The Mtv Time Line ...

July 28, 1991|CHRIS WILLMAN | Chris Willman is a regular contributor to The Times

A few great moments in MTV (and, by extension, music video) history . . .


Aug. 1: MTV goes on the air with its first video, the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star," and the prophetic correlation is clear: Talkies ended the careers of silent film stars; music video may do the same for camera-shy rockers. Ironically, the group Buggles, not terribly photogenic itself, never has another hit.

The first five "video jockeys" are perky Martha Quinn, the stepdaughter of Newsweek economics columnist Jane Bryant Quinn; her previous broadcast experience consists mostly of McDonald's commercials); perky Nina Blackwood and Alan Hunter, former (and future) aspiring actors, and perky Mark Goodman and J. J. Jackson, former (and future) FM rock jocks. In the early years, these wholesome, happy-go-lucky hosts tape their segments on sets cleverly designed to look like the basement recreation room that Mom and Dad let the kids decorate.

At the time of MTV's launch, there are only about 250 rock videos in existence to rotate on the material-hungry network. Of these, about 30 are by Rod Stewart. Thankfully, the ratio evens out a bit in subsequent years.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday August 4, 1991 Home Edition Calendar Page 91 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 26 words Type of Material: Correction
In last Sunday's cover stories on MTV's 10th anniversary, Jules Shear was incorrectly identified as founder of the program "MTV Unplugged." The creators were Bob Small and Jim Burns.


March 1: The infamous "I want my MTV" ad campaign debuts, urging pop fans who don't get the network as part of their basic service to call their cable companies and whine . Among those sloganeering pitchpeople learning early on to suck up to the influential channel are Pete Townshend, David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Stevie Nicks, Adam Ant, Pat Benatar--and the Police's lead singer, Sting (who will a few years later reprise this refrain in song, as a background vocalist on Dire Straits' "Money for Nothing").


February: Out of 60 videos on the MTV playlist, the only ones by blacks are from Tina Turner (in light rotation) and the interracial English Beat (in medium). Astonishingly, Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" has hit No. 1 on the pop charts without MTV having aired that or any other of his videos. Record companies and rock critics join in condemning MTV's perceived "racism." Founder Robert Pittman counters these cries by likening MTV's format to that of an FM album-rock station, stating that R&B music has no more of a place on the channel than does country and calling his critics "little Hitlers" attempting to impose their musical pluralism on the channel's die-hard rock fans.

Rumor has it that Columbia Records issues an ultimatum to MTV: Add "Billie Jean" to the playlist or kiss all our videos goodby. True or not, the network does start airing "Billie Jean" in heavy rotation, and it's a hit among viewers.

March 31: Not long after "Billie Jean" finally makes it to MTV, Jackson's follow-up, "Beat It," has its world premiere on the network. Budgeted at about $150,000, the clip is the most extravagant music-video production to date.

Dec. 2: Having started the year not even able to get his face on MTV, Michael Jackson ends it as the network's once and future kingpin, having his 14-minute "Thriller" premiered there. This is the first video of any major popularity with an extensive non-musical, dramatic wraparound, and the first to be made by a major feature-film director (John Landis). At the last minute, Jackson--then still a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses--adds a disclaimer to proclaim that he didn't intend to promote belief in or adherence to the occult with his werewolf and zombie movie homage.


Sept. 14: The first MTV Video Music Awards are broadcast from Radio City Music Hall with hosts Bette Midler and Dan Aykroyd. Winner of best video clip of the year: The Cars' "You Might Think."

Fall: "Miami Vice," a heavily pop music-laden NBC series that went into production under the unofficial working title "MTV Cops," premieres. Every Friday, the TV listings of USA Today mention the songs that will be featured in that night's episode. TV and movies will never be the same.


Jan. 1: "Adult-oriented" sister channel VH-1 goes on the air; over the years, the troubled network will change format from easy listening to grown-up hip to its current incarnation as a soulless Top 40 equivalent.

Spring: Dire Straits releases its "Brothers in Arms" album, highlighted by "Money for Nothing," a song in which two lower-class moving men watch hot mamas shaking their stuff at the camera on MTV for the benefit of ugly "chimpanzee" musicians and decide that "that's the way you do it: You get your money for nothing and your chicks for free." To open and close the tune, guest singer Sting plaintively croons "I want my MTV" ad nauseam. It's satirical, but lots of listeners miss the irony, and the channel--which obviously doesn't--loves it anyway. MTV's status as a cornerstone of '80s popular culture is cemented.

July 13: In MTV's most ambitious broadcast yet, the all-day, all-star Live Aid benefit is telecast live from three locations. After what seems like the 50th interruption of a song in progress, it's official: Millions agree that Nina Blackwood is the most annoying TV personality alive.

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