MTV’s first ever broadcast on August 1st, 1981 starts with footage of the Apollo 11 rocket launch. As the rocket lifts off, the footage cuts to an astronaut jumping on the moon, an acid-pop colored flag standing proud as the classic MTV logo shimmered. A music video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star” plays.
It’s an iconic scene, and one that I’ve watched countless times over the last few days thanks to a recent upload on the Internet Archive. Tens of hours of footage, spanning from that very first broadcast in 1981 through the end of the decade in 1989, are streaming for free on the website. Each upload, which started in early April and is being continuously added to, comes with descriptions about which VJ was hosting that particular day: Martha Quinn, Alan Hunter, JJ Jackson, Nina Blackwood. There are even Christmas episodes.
“This is my personal collection of 80’s MTV VHS recordings,” the uploader notes. “I’ve been collecting recordings of full, unedited, with commercials & especially the VJs for years. I’ve found these videos from old websites, torrent sites, sharing things, The Original MTV VJs facebook page, and of course the Archive.”
All of it is new for me. I wasn’t born in the ‘80s, and I didn’t start watching MTV until the early ‘00s. By then, music videos were replaced with reality stars, and insight into music’s influence on pop culture was swapped out for the latest gossip on celebrity feuds or whatever Britney Spears was up to that day. MTV’s initial concept had all but disappeared. (In 2014, comedian Seth Meyers roasted MTV for still having the Video Music Awards considering its network no longer played music videos.)
It’s understandable. MTV’s original premise is an antiquated tool. One channel, armed with a band of young, music-obsessed programmers, would curate a never-ending playlist of videos for teenagers lying down in front of TV sets in their living room. MTV didn’t have YouTube’s self-building playlist feature that automatically bundles 50 or more videos together for people based on their interests (a feature I use often), offering it up on a silver platter.
People aren’t spending their time lying down on the couch waiting for their favorite VJ to come on and debut the new Prince music video. Music videos are uploaded to YouTube by musicians at random hours of the night, or teased in clips on TikTok and Instagram. MTV, like other television channels, was forced to adapt to rapid changes facing the industry brought on by the internet and social media. That meant less big video premieres (Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” debuted on December 2nd, 1983, becoming an instant sensation) and more emphasis on shows like Jersey Shore, The Hills, and Teen Mom.
MTV no longer resembles MTV. It’s that nostalgia — even for someone like me, who was never around to experience the heyday of the channel — that makes the old VHS-quality streams on Internet Archive such a pleasure to watch. These aren’t just music videos served up via an algorithm. Watching old-school MTV feels warm; the difference between a curated album and a playlist generated by a faceless algorithm.
Plus, the commercials are a trip. The first ever MTV broadcast played ads for Mountain Dew, Superman II and, my personal favorite, cable.
“Soon television came along and gave us the gift of sight, but it was cable that gave us the freedom of choice,” a narrator introducing the network can be heard saying in MTV’s first broadcast.
In 1981, basic cable was still relatively new. The mid to late 1970s saw a couple of early cable companies find ways to bring specialized entertainment to television viewers in the United States who were mostly reliant on the major broadcasters for entertainment — NBC, CBS, and ABC. Basic cable channels (MTV, TBS, Nickelodeon, CNN) were the tantalizing new entrant in the television space; specialized and cooler than its broadcaster predecessors, but not expensive like premium cable service HBO.
MTV’s early broadcasts included numerous commercials promoting the idea of cable to eager audiences tuning in. Needless to say, cable became a staple in American households. As Ron Miller wrote in The Washington Post in 1989, “the overriding message from the 1980s is that TV got better.”
“In the 1980s, the major commercial networks — ABC, CBS and NBC — began to lose their monopoly on the TV audience in the face of competition from an ever-expanding TV universe,” Miller noted.
MTV was at the front of that charge. Watching these segments helps to reiterate why it was such a juggernaut in the 1980s — a period where culture targeted at teens, like John Hughes movies and the formation of the Brat Pack, reigned supreme. In the midst of everything happening right now, it’s become my new comfort to throw on a couple of hours of classic MTV.