The Iconic Early Days of MTV: An Interview with Neal Mirsky, Early MTV Producer

“I Want My MTV!” Who remembers the first time you heard that phrase? Did you ever realize the impact those 4 words would make? Today, we interview a true insider on the early days of MTV.

In the beginning:

“On Saturday, August 1, 1981, at 12:01 AM Eastern Time, MTV launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” spoken by John Lack and played over footage of the first Space Shuttle launch countdown of Columbia (which took place earlier that year) and of the launch of Apollo 11.”
And we were lifted off, to a previously unimaginable new world!

Remembering the first video, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, the sense of excitement that came with it, and the subsequent videos? It’s mind-blowing to hear the story of how it came to be during MTV’s early days. Almost everyone knows that first video. But do you remember the second one they played? *(answer at the end of the blog)*

Your favorite vintage blogger (that would be me), Tami Danielson, has the good fortune of being friends with someone who has a unique perspective of the early days of the video music channel, Neal Mirsky. Neal was the Coordinating Producer for MTV during its first two years. For those who don’t know Neal, he spent many illustrious years as Program Director for numerous radio stations across the country, and as Director of Creative Development in the early days of “E Television Network” amongst other things.  

I recently spoke with him regarding those early days. Like all Q & A formats, this interview is in Neal’s own words:

The Interview

Q. When did you start at MTV?  
I joined in 1982, just a few months after launch.

Q: What were your roles at MTV?
A. As Coordinating Producer I supervised all studio production.  That included all the VJ segments, music news and artist interviews.

Q: What did you think of this idea, at its inception?
Well, I was in radio at the time so, of course, I thought “This is never gonna fly – who’s gonna wanna watch the same video more than once?”

Q: Did you folks have a set playlist you had in mind at the beginning?
There weren’t a lot of videos being produced in 1982 so our playlist was based on what was available. Formatically, we were similar to an album rock radio station.

Q. How did you decide which videos to play and when?
I was on the Video Acquisition Committee.  We met every Wednesday to look at the new videos that were submitted by the record labels.  At the beginning, there were only a few new videos a week. By the time I left, the labels had figured out the importance of MTV and the meetings could last hours because we got so many new videos. That allowed us to be more selective.

Q. Did you think it would turn into such a huge phenomenon?
(chuckles) Not initially.  Most people don’t realize that MTV was almost a year old before we got added to the cable systems in New York City and Los Angeles.  Our coverage was pretty spotty. Nina Blackwood would get mobbed in Tucson or Miami, but she rode the subway to work because nobody recognized her in NYC.  That all changed when we were added to Manhattan Cable.

Q. Which veejays did you hire?
None.  They (the original 5) were already on board when I joined the staff.

Q. What bands really demonstrated the power of MTV at that time?
Two that come to mind are Duran Duran and Adam Ant.  “Girls on Film” and “Goody Two-Shoes” had been at radio for a year and were basically ignored.  After MTV exposure, both bands blew up.

Q. What was the culture like at the channel back in the early days?
We had a lot of fun at work, but it was work! We shot seven days of programming in five days.  9-hour days on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 13-hour days on Tuesday & Thursday. A lot of pre-planning went into making it a smooth, seamless production.

Q. And what was the social scene like at the channel?  
We definitely had fun.  Because our parent company owned Atari, we always had 3 or 4 of the latest video games on set.  When we took a short break between VJ shows, we would hit the games. Also, we had some huge ping-pong tournaments during dinner breaks…and yes, Martha Quinn could kick my ass at ping pong.

Q. Who came up with the phrase “I Want My MTV”?
Bob Pittman, I think? To be honest, I don’t know.

Q. What do you think of the current format of programming on MTV today?
I haven’t watched MTV in years. I do understand the reasons the station evolved though.

Q. If you went back today, what changes would you make now?
Change the name to “RTV” for REALITY and stop trying to masquerade as MTV. There is nothing “music” about it today. The MTV we knew and loved wouldn’t work today, because technology has changed so radically. Now you have YouTube and can see what videos you want whenever you want.

Q: Tell us some interesting facts about some of the acts?
Boy George showed up with a HUGE entourage. Probably the biggest of any artist.
Elton John was really nervous about his first appearance – had to sit with him and show him how it worked.
When the Who were in town to play Shea Stadium, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend came in for interviews, but not together.  Roger in the morning, Pete in the afternoon. They weren’t talking to each other at the time. They both spoke of how much each loved the other.  They just couldn’t say it to each other.

In closing, Neal had this to say:

“Back in the 60s, the Ed Sullivan show was probably the most critical mass show available. It impacted absolutely everything…fashion, music, everything.  For example, after the Beatles appeared, every kid in America wanted long hair, Beatle boots, and Carnaby Street clothes. The same thing happened with MTV.  All of a sudden, every girl wanted to look like Cyndi Lauper or Madonna. On the negative side, MTV, with its quick-cut editing, extreme close-ups, and constantly changing images, it totally changed how commercials, movies & TV shows are produced – it shortened people’s attention span. If you don’t change the ‘eye candy’ every few seconds people get bored.  I think that’s kind of sad.”

My Final Thoughts

To this day, I remember every minute of those first days and weeks. The sense of pure awe I felt, watching those videos into the wee hours of the morning. It was an addiction, like a drug. I will always “Want My MTV”!

PS – *The answer is … Pat Benatar’s “You Better Run”.*

Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]