Who invented MTV? Robert Friedman, a veteran media executive and entrepreneur who was part of MTV Network’s development team in 1981, says many people will claim that glory. But the truth is, inventions and innovation are rarely the product of one individual doing one particular thing at one specific point in time.  

“In the 1980s, there were a lot of videos on television,” Friedman says. “There had been some talk of video channels, and there was a lot of live music.” There was also HBO, and a year before MTV went on the air, Ted Turner had launched CNN as the first 24-hour cable news channel. Crucially, there was also an appetite for a promotional vehicle to sell records and albums. All of these factors and forces combined to create the right backdrop for MTV to be invented, he says. It was a product, so to speak, of collective innovation.  

And then there was luck, Friedman acknowledges: “We were very lucky at MTV. We didn't know much about the entertainment business. And I think part of the  skill set that we had was that we didn't know that much. And as a result, we could do things that were very different to what others had been doing in the business.”

Of course, as we now know, Friedman and his team’s early decisions paid dividends. “People always assumed that MTV was one year away from going away,” he says. But that didn’t happen. Forty-two years after launching, it’s still an icon of American popular culture, and that  is because MTV always positioned itself as “not normal television,” Friedman explains. And because it wasn’t normal — because it didn’t follow a predetermined pattern — there were no rules. 

Another company Friedman highlights is Netflix. Like MTV, it successfully tapped into the moods of the moment — the cultural and social Zeitgeist — while not playing by the existing rules. But, admittedly, it also got lucky. Originally a company that distributed DVDs by mail, Netflix today has over 200 million subscribers and, in 2022, was the biggest winner at the Emmy Awards. This all happened because of a confluence of factors, an openness to the new, an appetite for innovation, and a passion for experimentation. 

Right now, we’re seeing innovation in action as a result of ChatGPT, Friedman points out, comparing it to Google in its potential for effecting change. While acknowledging that use of such AI technology will present challenges, Friedman says it will also create opportunities: “Like Google, it's going to enhance content; it’s going to enhance the way we publish books and the way we write a whole bunch of other things.” 

He adds, “I think there will be casualties along the way, but I'm thrilled to death how this innovation and technology is changing our career — and certainly changing all of yours.” 

Unfamiliar technologies can be daunting and intimidating, Friedman concludes, but ultimately, as the past has taught us, the scope for creating something truly game changing is huge if we allow ourselves to drift off the well-trodden path. 


Takeaways from this event:

  1. Understand that as the world changes, so should the parameters of our thinking. Every moment will lend itself to a different invention and different innovation. 

  2. No map of the past can be a guide to the future. We can only know if something works by trying it.