Profile and History of '80s Cable Network and Music Tastemaker MTV

Madonna performing on the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall in New York City, September 14, 1984.
Frank Micelotta/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.


August 1, 1981 in New York City


Although a very different but still active entity today, MTV galloped through the '80s, for better and sometimes for worse, as a definite arbiter of musical taste, style and fashion. During the early '80s, the fledgling network helped introduce an entire stable of new music stars - from Madonna to Cyndi Lauper to Def Leppard - to a ravenous, eager public. As it gained an anchor of popularity, MTV created entire movements almost single-handedly, launching hair metal in the mid to late '80s as a form highly dependent on visual excess. Along the way, many viewers found it hard to separate the network from the music they sought.

Origins and Inspirations:

Contrary to popular belief, the music video format did not sprout instantaneously with the advent of MTV in 1981. Artists had been filming live performances and even crude concept videos for several years before MTV came along, but the problem had always been finding a consistent outlet for airing them. Much of the preparation of MTV came out of New York City, but an important prototype actually emerged with Warner’s early cable system, Qube, out of Columbus, Ohio. Some of the ideas exhibited there were picked up by executive Bob Pittman, who combined them with early music video work he had already started.

The Launch of MTV - August 1, 1981:

August 1, 1981 was one of the most iconic dates of the '80s, even if few people actually realized it back then. Just after midnight on that day MTV initiated programming, with the legendary opening, "Ladies and Gentlemen, Rock and Roll," followed by the network's power-chord-fueled guitar riff theme that would soon become so familiar. Created to showcase music videos featuring primarily new wave artists just coming out as well as older, established rock acts, that’s just what the network did initially, allowing audiences the opportunity to commune with their music heroes in a different way than ever before.

The Glory Years:

For almost the entirety of the decade of the '80s, MTV was a force to be reckoned with, serving as the music video headquarters for the pop music world. As such, monster '80s artists like The Police, Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi gained ever greater exposure to audiences through their constant appearances in the MTV rotation of videos. As the network gained popularity, it began to diversify programming a bit, introducing a stable of music-themed shows. Then, as the decade drew to a close, MTV began a gradual move away from music programming in favor of content geared toward reality TV and celebrity/pop culture.

Key '80s MTV VJs and Personalities:

  • Nina Blackwood
  • Mark Goodman
  • Alan Hunter
  • J.J. Jackson
  • Martha Quinn
  • Julie Brown
  • Downtown Julie Brown
  • Adam Curry
  • Riki Rachtman
  • Kurt Loder

Other Major '80s MTV-Supported Artists:

Important MTV Programs of the '80s:

  • 120 Minutes
  • Club MTV
  • Headbangers Ball
  • MTV Unplugged
  • Yo! MTV Raps
  • Remote Control
  • Video Music Awards