Forty years ago today, a lowly cable network called MTV introduced the world to the concept of music television with the matter-of-fact opening line, “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll.” On August 1, 1981, when cable television was still in its adolescence, MTV famously unleashed a pop culture revolution with the prescient song, “Video Killed The Radio Star,” by the British synth-pop band the Buggles.
At first ridiculed and facing resistance from an incredulous music industry, the infant cable network took the air for 24 hours a day, seven days a week. MTV sold just $500,000 worth of advertising and, according to the 2011 book, I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, ran at a loss of some $50 million.
The doldrums didn’t last long. Peddling everyone from Pat Benatar to a reinvented Rod Stewart and fronted by a handful of suddenly famous veejays, it took just two years for MTV to cement its hold on the world, as music companies learned that airing videos sold records and began funneling free copies to MTV’s offices in Fort Lee, New Jersey, while lobbying the network for more air time. By the time it aired “Thriller,” Michael Jackson’s iconic, 13-minute zombie mini-film, MTV was impossible to ignore.
In 1984, the year after “Thriller” debuted, MTV was reaching 25.4 million households and had doubled its revenue to $109.5 million. A year later Viacom bought the network and by 1992, MTV had quadrupled its revenue and its reach across the U.S.
But as reality TV was killing off MTV’s original video stars, the network that had defined an era risked losing its influence over a new generation of young people. It hopped on the reality fad in 1992 with The Real World. The show followed seven strangers living together in a New York City loft and came at a cost of less than $1 million per episode—about a third of what scripted TV cost to make.
“We realized we couldn’t afford writers,” says former MTV executive Van Toffler. “[Hiring writers] cost the same [budget] we had for the whole season of the show. We said, ‘Well, we’re not going to use writers. We have the kids.’”
The show triggered a torrent of programming that included the sophomoric stunt-show Jackass (2000-2002) and Ashton Kutcher’s celebrity pranks on Punk’d (2003-2015). In 2000 it created MTV Cribs, which gave an inside look at celebrity homes and in 2009, Jersey Shore, which in two years became MTV’s most-watched show ever as more than 8 million viewers tuned in to the third season premiere. But that too sputtered as the network tried its hand at scripted shows, which only showed that they still couldn’t wow its audience the way watching twentysomethings hook up on camera and yell at one another could.
In the five years leading up to 2016, with the network in its third decade, ratings plummeted nearly 50% in its core 18-49 demographic, according to Nielsen, and the network’s operating revenue fell more than 17% to $1.15 billion, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. The channel was placed in the hands of CEO Chris McCarthy, who embraced the ethos that Toffler says was its recipe for success through the decades: Don’t age with your audience, keep finding a new one for the shows you know already work.
McCarthy, then 43, revived Jersey Shore, this time sending seven characters from the original cast to Miami for a reunion called Jersey Shore Family Vacation. He stuck with the theme, adding Floribama Shore and bringing back Total Request Live after a nine-year hiatus. He now oversees more than 60 MTV franchises airing around the world.
“We take very little pitches,” he says. “We’re not buyers, we’re builders. When you say ‘Cribs,’ people have an emotion to that.”
He’s now rebooting Cribs for ViacomCBS’s Paramount+ streaming service — with fresh looks at homes for Martha Stewart, Scott Disick, and MTV alumni, including Snooki and Ashlee Simpson — and dusting off Behind the Music, the documentary series that first aired on spinoff channel VH1. With an audience still mostly in its 20s, according to McCarthy, MTV is holding strong: According to S&P Global Market Intelligence research analyst Scott Robson, it is second only to ViacomCBS kids channel Nickelodeon in U.S. cable revenue for the conglomerate and represents 10% of its market value.
“We have to forget everything we know to reimagine and rebuild ourselves for the next generation,” McCarthy, now 46, says. “We want to be with the young people.”
Here’s a look at where some of MTV’s icons have landed.
The early days of MTV are a salacious mix of scrappy salesmanship and organized choas, all of it happening across the river from New York City in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the only place that would carry the unwanted upstart on its debut.
Tom Freston, co-founder, MTV
Freston, 75, helmed the “I Want My MTV” campaign that sold MTV to cable operators. He ran MTV Networks for 17 years and, between TK and 2006 was CEO of Viacom. He is now a senior advisor of Firefly3, a media investment and consultancy firm.
Robert Pittman, CEO, iHeartMedia
67-year-old Robert Pittman has helmed several media and entertainment companies as a CEO including MTV Networks in 1983, Time Warner in 1990, and now at iHeart Media for the last decade, where he oversees 850 live broadcast stations, branded live music events and more. In 2008 he also co-founded the tequila brand Casa Dragones.
John Sykes, President of Entertainment Enterprises, iHeart Media
After leaving MTV in 1986, John Sykes returned for a second stint almost 20 years later as president of network development. He oversaw the launch of new cable networks and broadband sites for 35- to 50-year-olds before leaving again in 2008. He joined Pittman at iHeart in 2011 as president of Entertainment Enterprises. Sykes, 66, is also the Chairman of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation.
Les Garland, co-founder VH1
Les Garland runs Miami-based AfterPlay Entertainment, a consulting firm he founded that matches talent with brands. At MTV, Garland was executive producer of the first six MTV Video Music Awards.
MTV’s original “video jocks” quickly were a fresh kind of celebrity in the 1980s, entering living rooms across America in a way that faceless radio DJs could never do. Through the years, as VJs and newscasters came and went, a handful went on to have their own run at celebrity.
After spending eight years at MTV, Goodman, 62, worked on-air at alternative rock station KROQ and VH1, in programming at Soundbreak.com and as a music supervisor for Desperate Housewives. Since 2004 he’s DJed at Sirius XM for 80s on 8.
Post-MTV, Alan Hunter launched the production company Hunter Films in 2005 which later received an Academy Award nomination for the short film Johnny Flynton. Today, at age 64, he also hosts 80s on 8 on Sirius XM in addition to Classic Rewind.
The youngest of the original VJs, Quinn, landed her first MTV gig on the last day of auditions. Today she gives the inside scoop on her days as a VJ and more on her podcast Talk Talk with Martha Quinn with DJ Christie James and hosts the iHeart80s show weekdays from 6 to 10 a.m.
Another current 80s on 8 host, Nina Blackwood, 68, made a career on the small screen following her five-year run at MTV. In 1986, she hosted the “Rock Report” for Entertainment Tonight and later delivered music commentary on VH1, Access Hollywood and more.
Known for hosting the popular 1987 dance show Club MTV, “Downtown” Julie Brown gained popularity from her catchphrase “wubba wubba wubba” — rumored to be a television blunder — and scored several movie roles and gigs in the TV industry with ESPN, E!, and New Line Cinema. At age 57, she currently hosts the ‘90s on 9 on Sirius XM.
Jackson “set the tone for the early days of MTV,” officials said in a statement when he died of a heart attack in 2004. During his five years on air, Jackson hosted the “unmasking” of KISS in a 1983 interview and the launch of 120 Minutes in 1986.
MTV’s foray into actual TV saved the network in the 1990s and is the same playbook CEO Chris McCarthy is working from today. The shows helped launch a more than a few unforgettable household names — and some many love to forget.
Ed Lover and Doctor Dre
The co-hosts of MTV’s Yo! MTV Raps made history when the show launched in 1987 by bringing hip-hop to the masses. These days, 58-year-old Lover gives his take on pop culture every week with his podcast, C’Mon Son! The Podcast. After experiencing recent health complications due to his Type 2 Diabetes, Doctor Dre, 57, is hosting The Doctor’s Appointment on LL Cool J’s Rock the Bells Radio.
Like several other MTV alumni, Kurt Loder — the 76-year-old former host of MTV’s flagship news show, The Week In Rock — is at Sirius XM as the face of its monthly show True Stories, which features intimate conversations with musicians.
Viewers got to know MTV news reporter Tabitha Soren in the 90s for her famous interviews with music icons like Tupac and KISS and politicians such as Bill Clinton, Ross Perot and Ralph Nader. Today, 53-year-old Soren is a renowned fine art photographer, having landed exhibitions in galleries across the country, from California to New York.
Johnny Knoxville, Jackass
Ten years after Jackass 3.5 was released, Knoxville filmed Jackass Forever, another round of reckless pranks and stunts with Steve-O, Jason Acuna and the rest of the gang hitting theaters October 22. Knoxville, 50, told GQ it will be his last run.
Heather B. Gardner, The Real World
Recording artist and radio personality Heather B., 49, was most recently seen on the Paramount+ reunion special of The Real World, where she moved back into the New York City loft with the original cast of season 1 for six days.
Mike Judge, Beavis and Butt-head
The creator of the controversial Beavis and Butt-head kept up the funny stuff long afterCK leaving MTV with Fox’s King of the Hill (with Gred Daniels) and HBO’s Silicon Valley. The 58-year-old showrunner is overseeing a Beavis and Butt-Head revival for ViacomCBS-backed Comedy Central, thanks to a 2020 animation deal that ordered two new seasons.
Carson Daly, Total Request Live
Daly, 48, made headlines in July for officiating the wedding of his friends and colleagues from The Voice, Gwen Stefani and Blake Shelton. He’s been a host on The Voice since 2011 and co-host of The Today Show since 2013.
Lauren Conrad, Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County
Since starring on MTV’s Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County and The Hills from 2004 to 2010, Conrad, 35, has written several books, co-founded an online marketplace that connects women artisans with online consumers, and launched her own eco-conscious beauty brand.
Snooki and The Cast of Jersey Shore
After the original Jersey Shore ended in 2012, Polizzi, 33, starred in a spin-off with best friend and co-star Jenni “JWoww” Farley called Snooki & JWoww from 2012 to 2015. Three years later, the two reunited with their castmates on Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, which has since had four seasons. Snooki will host a new Ridiculousness spin-off called Messyness later this month.