How MTV finally came to the UK

Jon O'Brien 12 July 2022

35 years after it launched with Dire Straits "Money For Nothing", we look back on how MTV Europe became a cultural touchstone in its own right

Photo credit: Tom Blackwell under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

“I Want My MTV,” went the famous slogan designed to get America’s youth bombarding their local cable provider for access to the first ever 24-hour music channel.

Those on the other side of the Atlantic, however, had to wait exactly six years before they could make a similar demand.

The original MTV had launched on August 1, 1981, with the kind of fanfare last seen for the moon landing. It even borrowed stock footage of the famous Apollo 11 mission for its pop art idents.

While its amateurish VJs (video jockeys), low-budget loft studio and limited library of post-punk, AOR and new wave promos didn’t exactly merit such grandeur, the network did quickly become a cultural phenomenon.

The beginnings of MTV Europe

Street view of Amsterdam Roxy club with bicycles locked up on bridge over canalCredit: daves_archive1 with Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Early on, MTV Europe was immensely popular in the Netherlands, with Amsterdam's Roxy Club hosting its launch party

Robert Maxwell, would you believe, was the man who recognised that the UK, and the rest of Europe, also wanted their own MTV too. The soon-to-be disgraced media mogul, who teamed up with BT and Viacom to help meet the demand, was no doubt driven by his desire to trump his arch nemesis.

Rupert Murdoch’s Sky Channel, a satellite network with a strong focus on original music programming hosted by the likes of David “Kid” Jensen, Gary Davies and Anthea Turner, had failed to take off and was eventually rebranded as the more general entertainment-led Sky One.

Turner had also been a regular of Music Box, Britain’s first attempt to offer non-stop music videos. But after just three years on air, this too segued into a much less specific network, Super Channel.

"More than half of the over one million viewers that tuned in for its first week hailed from the Netherlands"

Turns out that non-stop music videos were a far more attractive proposition when surrounded by pan-European commercials, bizarre animated vignettes and unknowns presenting outside their native tongue.

In fact, in its early days the channel could have been named MTV Benelux.

More than half of the over one million viewers that tuned in for its first week hailed from the Netherlands, as did several of its hosts—see Belgian singer Marcel Vanthilt, Dutch personality Simone Angel and future frontwoman of Britpop also-rans Salad, Marijne van der Vlugt.

Even the launch night was filmed at Amsterdam’s coolest venue, the Roxy Club.

Entertainment for the international generation

It was at this nightspot that Elton John pulled the switch before the network’s first ever music video played, with Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” earning the honour that The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” had received in the States.

Ironically, Mark Knopfler was very much against the concept of the music promo.

The 1985 hit was an obvious choice, not only because of its “I want my MTV” lyric, but the fact that its ground-breaking computer and rotoscoped animation had helped Dire Straits pick up both Best Group Video and Video of the Year at the previous MTV VMAs.

Yet, for some, it was a disappointing indicator of the channel’s musical remit. MTV Europe might have been happy to hand over the VJ links to the continent, but the songs being introduced were often of the Anglo-American variety.

A 1991 survey discovered that European acts made up just 15 per cent of the weekly playlist.

Still, foreshadowing the channel’s future reliance on reality TV, many viewers were more interested in the non-music elements, anyway.

Entertainment news show Coca-Cola Report, fashion series The Pulse and movie preview The Big Picture proved to be just as instrumental to the channel’s identity as long-running favourites such as MTV’s Greatest Hits, European Top 20 and Dancefloor Chart.

"One of the most striking images of the Berlin Wall was a guard standing with an MTV-branded umbrella"

Chief executive, Tom Freston had been confident that the channel would be a success, telling the Los Angeles Times, “This is the first international generation. This is not to say there aren’t cultural differences, that the French aren’t different from the Germans. But a French teenager and German teenager are much more similar to each other than they are to their parents.”

And Freston was proven right. MTV Europe was attracting approximately three and a half million subscribers by its first birthday, a figure that then tripled by the end of the following year.

It was also in 1989 that the network put itself on the global map. Just two days after launching in East Berlin it was able to capture the fall of the Berlin Wall in more detail than most other traditional networks.

One of the most striking images of the historical moment was a guard standing atop the wall with an MTV-branded umbrella.

The Brandenburg Gate was also where MTV staged its inaugural Europe Music Awards just five years later, with performances from George Michael, Prince and Aerosmith further highlighting how the network had become a part of the pop establishment.

And yet impressively, it still managed to retain its gonzo spirit.

MTV grows up

Ray Cokes was particularly instrumental in this. His evening show MTV’s Most Wanted pioneered the kind of zany Zoo TV approach that Chris Evans would later hone on The Big Breakfast and TFI Friday.

Cokes sadly failed to make the same leap into the mainstream, but VJs such as Lisa I’Anson and Davina McCall proved that the network could serve as a training ground.

Sadly, the days of seeing ads for products you couldn’t buy, hosts you couldn’t quite understand and the next big holiday anthem months before its release ended when execs decided to break MTV up into different regions.

Germany, the UK and Italy all got their own dedicated versions in 1997, and by 2000, France, Spain, Poland and the Netherlands had followed suit.

MTV Europe continues to broadcast elsewhere but, like its American counterpart, without any actual music.

Read more: The evolution of music: The music revolution of the 1960s

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