The 100 Greatest Moments In Television/1980s

Aug. 1, 1981
Before hordes of hormone-addled postadolescents could embarrass themselves on Singled Out, before Claymation stars could dismember and maim each other on Celebrity Deathmatch, before Tabitha Soren could field the question ''Boxers or briefs?'' for Bill Clinton...there were the Buggles. It was the clip for the novelty band's jaunty 1979 tune ''Video Killed the Radio Star'' that launched MTV and kicked off — at least ceremonially — a revolution in youth-oriented programming. From the start, it was clear that everything about the cable upstart — its kinetic style-over-substance aesthetic, its kicky irreverence, its edgy antiauthoritarian bent — was designed not just to attract young viewers but to empower them with a new identity. Suddenly, they weren't just teenagers, they were the MTV generation. (Of course, the task was difficult in those early days, given the lack of any actual programming. ''When we went on the air,'' says Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, who at the time was head of marketing, ''we had 168 clips. And 30 of them were Rod Stewart.'') The fallout was dramatic. ''I want my MTV!'' quickly graduated from promotional slogan to teen rallying cry. Movies and TV shows soon began copying the network's quick-cut, impressionistic feel. Music began championing a new breed of rock star — video-friendly artists such as Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Duran Duran. It was a signal moment in pop-cultural history: For the first time, an entire generation could be defined not so much by their common beliefs but by the type of TV they watched. Rank 6

July 28, 1982
Kaufman's comedy-as-performance-art ethos was on full display as he used Letterman to fuel his feud with wrestler Jerry Lawler. Appearing in a neck brace from a previous bout, Kaufman insulted Lawler, who slapped the comic. Kaufman swore, threw a cup of coffee at Lawler, and stalked off. Nonplussed, Letterman shifted a bit, then muttered, ''I'll just be over here.'' The memorable segment was the first in what would become a Letterman tradition: the public meltdown. ''We had no better guest than Andy Kaufman in those days,'' Letterman said later. ''You never knew what he was going to do other than that it was going to be strange and exciting.'' Rank 93

Jan. 19 and 26, 1983
The Reagan era's definitive sitcom found its voice — and helped boost the careers of two future showbiz giants — with this first-season two-parter, which finds aspiring yuppie Alex P. Keaton (Michael J. Fox) disillusioned with capitalism after discovering that his Uncle Ned (a pre-Splash Tom Hanks) is a corporate embezzler. ''Tom was such an electrifying actor,'' recalls Michael J. Weithorn, the episodes' writer (now exec producer of The King of Queens), who suggested the Bosom Buddies vet to creator Gary David Goldberg. ''Michael always credited Tom with sending him to the next level of acting.'' Rank 73

May 16, 1983
One small step for man, one giant glide for pop culture: Michael Jackson unveils his physics-defying ''moonwalk'' during the song ''Billie Jean'' and leaves even rocket scientists scratching their heads. "We spent hours in the editing room discussing every shot," says Don Mischer, producer-director of the NBC special. ''He had a great sense of theater.'' Rank 79

Jan. 17, 1984
Although videocassette recorders had been on the market since 1975, the real breakthrough for the accessory didn't come until 1984, when the Supreme Court ruled that home taping did not violate copyright laws. The decision not only meant that John Doe wasn't guilty of a crime when he recorded Scarecrow and Mrs. King for future viewing, but also that VCR manufacturers wouldn't be liable to studios for royalties. That opened the floodgates: Companies rushed machines to stores, and prices plummeted. By December, sales had nearly doubled from the previous year. In the ensuing 15 years, the VCR would change how we use a television, freeing viewers to become their own programmers. ''People now pick and choose what they want to see,'' Tim Stearns, a professor of business and broadcasting at the University of Wisconsin, said at the time. ''We're in the age of the video jukebox.'' How complete has the revolution been? In a 1996 MIT survey, 806 of 1,008 respondents named the VCR as the invention that made life easier for them. Rank 42


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