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The Monkees‘ wool-hat-wearing guitarist Micheal Nesmith is widely believed to have established MTV‘s original format. How did his solo work lead to him receiving credit for defining music videos as we know them? And how did he feel about the suggestion he was a “father” of MTV? Read on to find out.

Michael Nesmith of The Monkees, pictured in 2017, is sometimes credited with helping inspire the ideas behind MTV
Michael Nesmith | Bobby Bank/Getty Images

Michael Nesmith created one of the first music videos before the days of MTV

After leaving The Monkees, Nesmith went on to find success as a solo artist. And in the late ’70s, he came up with the idea for what he called the first music video, where visuals were designed to tell a story with the song (per his obituary in The New York Times).

He shared, “As we edited these images, an unusual thing started to emerge: The grammar of film, where images drove the narrative, shifted over to where the song drove the narrative, and it didn’t make any difference that the images were discontinuous.”

“It was hyper-real,” Nesmith added. “Even people who didn’t understand film, including me, could see this was a profound conceptual shift.”

Eventually, a music video for Nesmith’s song “Rio” emerged. He claimed it was the first, though other artists had created videos for some of their songs. Still, most of those were live performances, whereas he saw the potential for a new kind of experience for music fans.

Michael Nesmith developed a show for Nickelodeon that some say was the inspiration for MTV

Nesmith was part of developing a show called PopClips for Nickelodeon, and it was dedicated to showing nothing but music videos. Comedians like Howie Mandel served as video jockeys, though they weren’t called that yet.

The show proved to be a big hit with the kids watching, so powers that be at the network wanted to step in and streamline it. That’s when Nesmith decided to take his money and bow out. “My plan had always been to build it and sell it,” he said (per Texas Monthly). “They paid me a nice number. That was my exit.”

John Lack, the chief operating officer of Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment Company, said he took the idea and ran with it. In an interview with I Want My MTV, he explained how he started trying to develop a similar channel dedicated to music. This all led to the launch of MTV in 1981.

When the channel got off the ground, Lack said he went back to Nesmith and offered him a job as a creative consultant, which the former Monkee turned down because he supposedly didn’t like the direction they were taking. And he seemingly didn’t need the money.

Michael Nesmith didn’t take credit for MTV

Nesmith downplayed being the “father” of MTV, but he did take credit as an “architect” (per Texas Monthly). According to his NYT obituary, written after his death at 78, he waved off the suggestion that he was some sort of singular influence.

In an interview for I Want My MTV, Nesmith said the creation of MTV was more of “a gradual coalescence of different things,” not just his ideas. He called it “a confluence of energies,” adding, “It’s one of those ideas that nobody really thinks up. It’s like justice. Or kindness. Nobody thinks that up.”

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