MTV’s pre-history began in 1977, when Warner Cable (a division of Warner Communications and an ancestor of WASEC, Warner Satellite Entertainment Company) launched the first two-way interactive cable TV system, Qube, in Columbus, Ohio.
The Qube system offered many specialized channels, including a children’s channel called Pinwheel which would later become Nickelodeon. One of these specialized channels was Sight On Sound, a music channel that featured concert footage and music oriented TV programs; with the interactive Qube service, viewers could vote for their favorite songs and artists.
MTV’s programming format was created by the visionary media executive, Bob Pittman, who later became president and chief executive officer of MTV Networks. Pittman had test driven the music format by producing and hosting a 15 minute show, Album Tracks, on WNBC, New York, in the late 1970s. Pittman’s boss, WASEC COO John Lack, had shepherded a TV series called PopClips, created by former Monkee-turned solo artist Michael Nesmith, the latter of whom by the late 1970s was turning his attention to the music video format.
HBO also had a 30 minute program of music videos, called Video Jukebox before MTV. Also around this time, HBO would occasionally play one or a few music videos between movies.
On August 1, 1981, at 12:01 a.m., MTV: Music Television launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” spoken by original COO John Lack. Those words were accompanied by the original MTV theme song, a crunching guitar riff written by Jonathan Elias and John Petersen, playing over a montage of the Apollo 11 moon landing. MTV producers used this footage because it was in the public domain.
Appropriately, the first music video shown on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. The second video shown was Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run”. Sporadically, the screen would go black when someone at MTV inserted a tape into a VCR.
At launch time, the official subscriber count across America was 500,000 but the immediate impact would have argued that every young adult’s television in the country was tuned to MTV.