There were very few “ideas” for spots I could claim as mine at MTV. Identifying talent and strategy were my strengths, and I felt from there everything else would flow. But this spot was different; it’s the one for which I feel complete ownership.
Bob Pittman wanted there to be a signal identification at the top and bottom of each and every hour of MTV: Music Television, where the VJ would identify the most important music videos in that half hour. We agreed it would be voice over animation, with stills IDing the songs.
But, what should the animation be? It had to be memorable, repeatable, and not drive a viewer completely crazy. After all, it was going to play almost 17,000 times every year. And we had only 90 days until launch.
It seemed to me MTV had the most stuck up and conceited view of ourselves. We were completely enamored of the fact that we had no TV shows on our TV networks (a new “show” every three minutes, when a new video started). That was world changing, right? (Well, not really. CNN beat us to it. But we conveniently forgot about that.)
My mentor Dale Pon had introduced me to the treasure trove of free images and film from NASA, a public government entity which we all “owned” as US citizens. It would be an inexpensive source of public domain video for us. As a start-up —no one was really sure this thing would work except us— we needed all the financial short-cuts we could find.
"Space is very rock’n’roll," said senior producer Marcy Brafman.
This spot was going to be our most important. There would be over 30 changing video pieces every hour (music videos, promos, VJs, and commercials) and this would be the only thing all day that was constant. It would get a lot of scrutiny.
So, I thought the “top of the hour” spot should do it’s job and reflect our conceit, be inexpensive, and use our ever changing logo. Oh right, it had to have that indefinable rock attitude.
I thought the simplest way to combine all that stuff was to steal the shine from an already existing piece of video. Let’s take the most famous television moment ever and fold, spindle, and mutilate it to our nefarious purposes.
Our brainstorming turned up some famous, or really infamous, stuff. The biggest one we thought about was the Lee Harvey Oswald shooting by Jack Ruby that was live on television in 1963. Aside from it’s wrongness, it occurred to me that it was only an American moment. We were claiming that MTV would be “the world’s first video music channel.” We needed a world moment.
Right then it came to me. In the summer of ‘69 I was traveling behind the Iron Curtain with my family on the day of the Apollo 11 moonwalk. The streets of dirt poor Sofia, Bulgaria were chocked with walkers looking for apartments with televisions to witness this seemingly impossible achievement of man. Truly, the most memorable worldwide event in TV history.
Let’s cop it, I figured. The worst that could happen is that a generation of kids would grow up wondering why NASA photoshopped in an American flag with MTV’s used to be.
Alan Goodman and I enlisted Buzz Potamkin’s Perpetual Motion Pictures (soon to be Buzzco) to put together the spot. David Sameth produced for Buzz, Candy Kugel illustrated and directed (logos originally designed and illustrated by Manhattan Design), and music was by John Petersen and Jonathan Elias at Elias/Peterson.
By the way, this version of the spot never ran. The day before launch the lawyers informed me we needed, and would never receive, permission from astronaut Neil Armstrong to use his quotation. For launch night only —midnight, August 1, 1981— one of our big bosses did a voice over. John Lack, the executive vice president of our parent, Warner Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, who’s idea had been the seed from which MTV grew, announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, rock’n’roll.” John, a huge music fan was proud of his role in jump starting this phase of the evolution. And from 1 a.m. until the very end, the rocket blast sounded with only a ‘beep beep beep’ in place of Mr. Armstrong.
The VMA Moonman
The spot ran more than 75,000 times, more than 15,000 each year, through variations of animation and music. Now, it’s sense memory DNA is left in the “Moonman” award from the VMAs (the idea of Manhattan Design's Frank Olinsky, I believe); no one in the audience knows why it exists. It was only retired, tragically, on January 28, 1986, when the Challenger Shuttle exploded in mid-air. The end of the first space era.
This story’s shorter. A couple of months after the network launch, Bob promoted me to Vice President, MTV’s first (a big deal in those pre-title inflationary days); I was probably whining too much about how hard I was working. He put together a huge congratulatory event and asked Alan to make some video just for the party. He asked director Steve Oakes and producer Peter Rosenthal at Broadcast Arts in Washington DC to modify one of the awesome claymation spots they’d made for us. They put a plasticine me in the spot and ignobly ran me over. I got what I deserved.
My promotion party, October 1981. That’s my boss, Bob Pittman, to my right.
Photo by Pat Gorman, courtesy of John Sykes.