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…