I Want My 18-34 Demographic: MTV's Research-Heavy (And Kinda Unhip) Approach To Melding Radio And TV

MTV turns 30 today. To celebrate, we're running a bunch of pieces on the channel, its legacy, and its future.

via Tacky and Kitsch
Send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the above address, and you could have your own Dial Sticker.

The first 59 minutes of MTV—12:01 a.m. to 1 a.m., exactly 30 years ago today—totally sucked. Not because the upstart cable network opened with the Buggles' "Video Killed the Radio Star" (which still rules), or because of the clip for Pat Benetar's "You Better Run" that came a few minutes later (ditto). Not because of the affably bland ex-WPLJ DJ Mark Goodman, or how the ads for Mountain Dew, Trapper Keepers, or Dolby sound didn't hit their targets, either. That first hour—which you can watch right here—sucked because nothing made any sense. "All the V.J. segments were out of sequence," founder Bob Pittman later remembered. "They would say, 'That was,' and it wasn't, and 'Coming up is,' and it wasn't coming up. The polarization on the wires was also switched, so if you were listening in stereo, it was fine, but if you were in mono, it was canceling the sound out."

Pittman and the rest of the first MTV staff could be excused for screwing up their first hour of TV (only a handful of cable subscribers in northern New Jersey were watching anyway—even the founders had to head to a Fort Lee sports bar to tune in). These were mostly radio people, after all, trying to find a way to make some money in the fledgling realm of cable television. They picked a good time: the music industry was seeking any strategy to reenergize itself in the midst of a multi-year slump after disco flamed out. Like so many startups that aimed to merge existing ways of doing things, MTV was a kludge in its earliest years, but at the same time it was also a quiet miracle of technological convergence. Venture capitalists and tech geeks take note: MTV was the 1980s' most killer music app.

"Behold. A new concept is born. The best of TV, combined with the best of radio." Like he's trying to sell you a high-tech gizmo in an electronics store, OG MTV VJ Goodman explicitly links MTV's futuristic melding of the visual and the aural. Soon-to-be teen idol Martha Quinn one-upped him during her own brief introduction, referring to the network as "the newest component of your stereo system." A bit later, after airing videos from Rod Stewart and the Who, Goodman would pimp MTV's first plug-in. "We've got something to help you keep MTV at your fingertips," he explained, before introducing the Dial Position Sticker, available for the low cost of a self-addressed stamped envelope. "Stick it on your stereo dial, and it marks the exact spot where our sound comes in." A decade and a half before the Web went wide, MTV had invented the browser bookmark.

"We'll be doing for TV what FM did for radio," Goodman predicted. How true that was. TVs in the early 1980s weren't exactly equipped for full stereo sound, and MTV had to work with FM radio stations to simulcast the audio. Coming of age in the late '60s to unite audiophiles and hippies, FM radio occasioned the rise of freeform jocks like Tom Donohue, who'd play all 12 minutes of "The End" to those properly tuned in. As the 70s wound on, however, FM station directors wanted to keep the freeform idea, but make it more predictable and profitable. Enter demographic research and the rise of the radio "consultant," out of which the loathed Album-Oriented Rock (AOR) format emerged.

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