MTV’s Disastrous Police Contest

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Contest winners became big losers when synchronicity fails

“It’s a party in the sky!” the on-air tout promised. “You take over a private jet and it’s better than first class…”

In its early days, MTV held amazing contests. Want proof? They gave away a little pink house to promote John Mellencamp’s song by that name. Houses were cheaper then, but still… a house!

Back then I was Billboard magazine’s video editor, responsible for covering MTV. The channel had a corporate PR person I dealt with all the time – I’ll call her Cheryl. Cheryl invited me to go along with the winner of the 1983 Police Party Plane contest. I’d join him and 25 of his closest friends on a private plane, with an MTV VJ, to see the Police anywhere in North America and meet the band.

The prize was advertised as a party in the sky. On the plane, the winner and his friends would watch the new movie National Lampoon’s Vacation and everyone would go home with the latest Atari video game system. It was an ‘80s dream come true!

At the time, the Police – Sting, Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers – were one of the biggest bands in the world. Their album, Synchronicity, was #1 and they had just scored their first #1 U.S. single with “Every Breath You Take,” one of four hits from the LP.

The contest winner was an engineer at the CBS TV affiliate in Philadelphia. He was married, a grownup. He examined his options and chose to see the Police at a festival in Montreal that also featured Talking Heads, English Beat and Peter Tosh.

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“Onboard your crew has everything covered, and it’s all there, from food and drink to Atari video games. There’s also a VJ” – the sweet and lovely Martha Quinn!

The plan was that VJ Martha Quinn, some MTV executives including Cheryl, someone from the Police’s management office, a couple other journalists and I would go to Philly to join the winners on their flight to Montreal. We piled into two limos in Manhattan and headed… the wrong way. At one point someone looked out the window and noticed we were well into Delaware. We got off at a rest stop, where Martha Quinn was mobbed at the Burger King. The drivers got new directions. It turned out we were many miles off course.

We got to the airfield more than three hours after the contest winner and his two dozen friends had boarded the jet. They had been trapped on the plane the entire time without any food other than pretzels, but with a full bar. They were drunk, and extremely resentful at having to wait for us. Apparently an MTV lawyer was afraid that if they took off without a VJ, the guy might sue for not getting the full value of his prize. So they were stuck until we got there, and that meant the winner missed a big chunk of the festival he’d so carefully selected.

It was a short and unpleasant flight to Montreal. Sure, we were all given cool jackets merging the MTV and Police Synchronicity logos, and there was a huge round bed that slept about five, with a giant seatbelt, but otherwise there wasn’t much to enjoy. I interviewed the winner, who complained that he had to pay a fortune in taxes for the retail value of the prize: renting and staffing a private plane, 26 concert tickets, the movie screening, 26 Ataris…it all added up. His friends had chipped in, spending hundreds of dollars apiece on, so far, just a lot of waiting around for a bunch of unnecessary strangers. No offense taken – I’d have been a raving lunatic in his position.

“You’re off to the stadium for the Police live. After the show you’ll meet the band.” Actually, before the show you’ll briefly meet the band…

When we landed we were herded into a bus and taken to Montreal’s Olympic stadium. We’d missed two out of the four acts, and were paraded past the Police with no time for pleasantries or even a stop at the backstage buffet. When we got to our seats, they were… crappy. I mean, there aren’t a lot of good seats in a stadium, but these were pretty damn high up. To make matters worse, MTV had put its executives and guests right in front of the winner’s group. It was like one more slap in their faces. Some of us decided to go to the concession stand to get some food, but guess what – they didn’t accept American dollars or take credit cards!

While Talking Heads played some of their Tom Tom Club material, the winner and his wife, who were sitting directly behind me, started fighting about what a waste of time and money this was, how they’d been duped by MTV. It escalated, until she said “Go fuck yourself,” and he responded, “If I could do that, I wouldn’t have had to marry you!” Silence fell over our group.

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“…and the movie ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ with Chevy Chase.” Even if you don’t want to meet the Griswolds and just get off the plane….

The Police put on a great show in those days, but honestly, I don’t remember any of it. In part that’s because – believe it or not – we had to leave early to get back to the plane! Yes, we missed the end just as we had the beginning. I think Cheryl was afraid we’d get stuck in the crowd if we stayed to the end. We trudged to the bus to the strains of Police, not even objecting at this point. We were beaten, winners turned to losers. We headed back to the airport, where the airfield was…locked. We ended up waiting more than an hour in the bus, behind a chain link fence, while Cheryl argued and pleaded. Let’s just say no one suggested singing a few songs. By the time we got on the plane, it was probably 2 a.m.

The flight back was much longer than the flight there. Why? Because the MTV lawyer on board insisted National Lampoon’s Vacation be shown in its entirety, again to avoid a potential lawsuit. We circled the airport for an hour, everyone sound asleep, while Chevy Chase did his thing. Just to make the night complete, we were harassed by Philadelphia Customs agents suspicious of a private plane coming in from a rock festival in the middle of the night. Cheryl had to open her mascara and every other item in her purse for a particularly surly agent.

I got home in time to change clothes and turn around to go out again to work, where my phone was ringing as I got to my cubicle. It was Cheryl, begging me not to write anything, or even tell anyone what had happened. She promised to reward me with another trip if I kept quiet. I was immediately reminded of that W.C. Fields joke where first prize is a week in Philadelphia and second prize is two weeks in Philadelphia. I agreed to do a brief blurb only and never did write the story – until now.

Laura Huntt Foti

2 Comments so far

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  1. NoeTheG
    #1 NoeTheG 28 September, 2015, 12:26

    Laura, this is so funny I forgot to laugh. Especially the last two words in the story: “until now”

    Reply this comment
  2. MJM
    #2 MJM 4 October, 2021, 08:48

    This is just awesome. I mean, you have to assume that stuff like this happened, but the detail here makes it hysterically precious.

    Reply this comment

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