1981: A Look Back at the Year VideoAge Launched

Twenty-five years down the road, and the world (and TV) climate is vastly different than it was back in 1981 when VideoAge was born as “The Business Journal of Television,” with 21 ad pages and 35 editorial pages. Back then, typewriters, typesetters and printers served as intermediaries between the editors and writers of VideoAg e and their readers. And before e-mail was invented, VideoAge’s staff used the Telex machine to communicate their messages internationally.

When VideoAge launched in 1981, the international television industry was still in its infancy, and the U.S. dominated the sector. Today, thanks to globalization, that has changed. Shows move freely across country borders in a way that could never have been imagined just a quarter of a century ago. Formats and completed series from a wide range of countries enjoy success all over the world.

And you don’t have to look any further than attendance numbers at springtime international TV market, MIP-TV, to see the growth in the industry. In 1981, attendance at MIP-TV was recorded at 3,626 individuals, comprised of 1,044 companies from 107 countries. Today, over 13,000 participants hail from 3,724 companies and 92 countries. In 1981, VIDCOM, the fall Cannes market, was a precursor of MIPCOM.

First Video Age Cover 1981
VideoAge’s first cover

Today, the hot tech topics occupying the minds of TV executives and the pages of TV trades are Internet protocol television, video-on-demand, iPods, mobile TV, broadband TV and high definition DVDs. But then, the focus was on cable and satellite [Stanley S. Hubbard attempted an entry into satellite TV by filing for the first DBS license for his company, U.S. Satellite Broadcasting (USSB)] and VCRs (there were actually only four million machines worldwide). Members of the Writers Guild of America announced an end to their 13-week strike against film and television producers after being guaranteed, for the first time, a share in revenues from video cassettes, VideoDiscs, and pay-television.

Pay-per-view, Fin-Syn and HDTV were just poised to enter the vernacular. In fact, Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, NHK, was at the forefront, demonstrating HDTV with 1,125 lines of resolution.

In other tech news, Sinclair announced their first flat-screen, pocket-sized TV: the Microvision 2700. The SelectaVision VideoDisc system was introduced to 14,000 RCA dealers and distributors via a closed-circuit telecast from NBC Studios.

In 1981, in the U.S, the three broadcast networks accounted for 85 percent of the TV viewing audience. Advertising expenditures totaled $5.5 billion for all three networks. Today, advertising expenditure is about double (though now, thanks to Fox, that total is divvied up between four networks); but the broadcast networks account for just a little over 30 percent of the audience share. Then, there were 26 cable TV networks, but multi-channel penetration held at less than 50 percent of households. Today, that number holds steady at slightly under 95 percent of households.

In August 1981, just one month before VideoAge’s first issue was published, MTV launched on cable and became the first TV network dedicated to airing music videos. But, at the time, only a few thousand people on a single cable system in northern New Jersey could see it. Sometimes the screen would go black when someone at MTV inserted a tape into a VCR. Now, MTV is a global brand and family of channels with some very high-tech features, including MTV Overdrive -- its broadband channel.

Another, smaller company was born during the same year: Carsey-Werner Productions, an independent production company that was formed by former ABC writer/producer duo Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner in 1981. Since then, the company has produced its share of hit sitcoms, including The Cosby Show, That 70’s Show, Roseanne and 3rd Rock from the Sun. Like VideoAge, Carsey-Werner remains one of the few independents left in the TV business.

Over in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was crashing with critics. RAI, the country’s state broadcaster, was involved in a clash with Berlusconi. Total advertising revenue was $273 million for RAI and $160 for the private sector.

In Brazil, economic difficulties ensued but TV revenues were expected to reach $2.2 billion. Two new national networks were developed as a result of the folding of Rede Tupi -- which owned eight TV channels. The channels were awarded to SBT and TV Manchette.

As far as programming went, after 19 years hosting the CBS Evening News Walter Cronkite signed off for the last time. Syndicated entertainment-focused newsmagazine Entertainment Tonight launched in the U.S. and soapy primetime series Dynasty with Joan Collins premiered on ABC.

Across the pond, the biggest TV event was taking place: almost a billion people worldwide tuned in to watch the wedding of England’s Prince Charles to Diana Spencer.

At the box office, Superman II earned $24 million in its first week of theatrical release, smashing the movie industry’s single week record. Chariots of Fire won the 1981 Academy Award for Best Picture.

And as testament to the power of Hollywood, President Ronald Reagan was shot in the chest outside a Washington, D.C. hotel by John Hinckley, Jr., who said he committed the crime to imitate the lead character in Martin Scorcese-directed film Taxi Driver.

There were plenty of major political changes occurring around the world in 1981. In the U.S., a Republican (Reagan) was inaugurated president, taking over from Democrat Jimmy Carter. As a result of a new, more conservative government, which supported a smaller infrastructure, the U.S.’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC), announced that it would initiate major regulatory reforms. Reagan’s administration subscribed to the philosophy that less governmental interference would be best when it came to broadcasters. When speaking of FCC regulations, chairman Mark Fowler said, “If it can’t be justified, it will be eliminated.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled to allow television cameras in the courtroom, making way for the cable TV channel Court TV ten years later.

Over in Europe, Greece entered the European Community, which later became the European Union. In France, socialist François Mitterand becomes president of the Republic.

In the Middle East, in a televised address before the Egyptian Parliament, President Hosni Mubarek asserted that Egypt was “an African State” that was “neither East nor West” and would consequently, never be within the orbit of this or that country, or this or that bloc.”

There were quite a dew technical inventions which first came to light in 1981. That year marked the invention of the MS-DOS operating system by Microsoft. It was the most widely used member of the DOS family of operating systems and remained the dominant operating system for the PC compatible platform during the 1980s. It has gradually been replaced on consumer desktop computers with various generations of the Windows operating system. The creation of DOS coincided with the first IBM-PC, which was launched in August 1981.

In out-of-the-office technology news, for the first time, NASA successfully launched and landed its reusable spacecraft, the Space Shuttle. The shuttle could be used for a number of applications, including launch, retrieval, and repair of satellites and as a laboratory for physical experiments.

What the next 25 years have in store is anyone’s guess, but judging from the progress made from since 1981, businesses will get bigger, TV and film will be more global, and executives and consumers will become more and more dependent on new and emerging technologies