When MTV turned 10 back in 1991, the network roped in Tom Cruise, George Michael, Aerosmith, R.E.M., Madonna, and Michael Jackson for a giant anniversary special. “It’s been an amazing decade for MTV,” Cruise said at the top of the night. “It’s gone from a small idea to a worldwide phenomenon. You can now see MTV in 72 countries on six continents. And you can see MTV’s influence everywhere you look, from movies to TV shows to commercials.”
They went even bigger for the 20th anniversary in the summer of 2001 by holding the MTV20: Live and Almost Legal concert at New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom with Mariah Carey, Jane’s Addiction, TLC, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Blink-182, Method Man, Run-DMC, Billy Idol, Sum 41, Sean Combs, Kid Rock, Ja Rule, and the five original VJs. They hyped it up breathlessly for weeks and aired mini documentaries about the history of the network.
They’re celebrating the 40th anniversary on Sunday by airing, no joke, 47 straight episodes of Ridiculousness and not acknowledging it in any way. “People nowadays say, ‘Hey, what the hell happened to MTV?'” original VJ Alan Hunter recently said to the New York Post. “‘Can we get it back?’ To which I say, ‘Why? Why would you want it back?’ You’ve got YouTube and the internet. You can watch any damn video you want to. You don’t need MTV to tell you what to look at anymore.”
YouTube was just a distant dream when MTV went onto the airwaves on August 1st, 1981, at 12:01 AM. They famously kicked off by showing “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, and those historic first few hours have re-aired several times over the years. But much of the rest of the channel’s early history was basically lost until a few die-hard fans started combing through their VHS archives and uploading clips onto YouTube and the Internet Archive. Countless hours of vintage programming are now available for free.
For a tiny idea of what’s available, check out 19 minutes from August 29th, 1981. This is just four weeks after the launch and they’re still figuring everything out. Nina Blackwood is flying solo from the New York studio as she teases an upcoming live concert by the Charlie Daniels Band and introduces videos by the Ramones, the Pretenders, Pat Benatar, the Tube, and Billy Squier. It all feels just one tiny step above a public-access channel, but there’s a certain charm to Blackwood reading off news reports from a clipboard (“Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page is writing the film score for Death Wish 2“), and it’s clear that the potential for the channel is just massive.
It would be great if MTV Classic devoted airtime to footage like this, but they seem to have no interest in digging through the vaults. It’s just endless blocks of Eighties and Nineties videos, minus any sort of commentary or context, and the ratings are so bad that Nielsen doesn’t even report them anymore. The good news is that the Internet Archive is picking up the slack. Let’s just hope no pesky lawyers try to shut down what they’re doing. If MTV refuses to celebrate its own history, others should be allowed to do it.