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New Winning Act: MTV and the Cash Cows

Before Madonna, R.E.M. and Pearl Jam even take the stage on Thursday, one thing is pretty clear. The big winner in this year’s 10th annual MTV Video Music Awards is . . . MTV.

The awards show has become the banner event for the cable channel that defines pop culture, in terms of both ratings and ad revenue. It’s where Seattle grunge converges with Madison Avenue greed, all in the name of rock and roll and commerce, which are often the same thing.

More than 4 million cable households are expected to tune in the view-a-thon--10 times MTV’s usual audience. Millions more will see the show in syndication and on international satellite feeds, including live audiences in Japan and Europe.

Viacom International Inc., MTV’s parent company, announced Monday that it has already syndicated the award show to 146 stations covering 90% of the country. In return for the syndication rights, the company gets 11 minutes of national ad time on each telecast.

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While Viacom won’t reveal revenue figures, advertising consultants estimate that sponsors such as Advanced Formula Oxy, Levi, Taco Bell and Heath/Pay Day candy bars are spending $100,000 per 30-second spot on this year’s show--compared to a usual rate of $2,500--to reach the zit-fighting, blue-jeans-wearing, candy-bar- and fast-food-gobbling MTV nation.

“These are costs you’d expect to see in prime-time network TV,” said one advertising specialist who asked not to be named. “It’s probably the highest cost going in cable, including ESPN.”

MTV has skillfully cultivated the event over the years, moving it from a cultural curiosity to a cultural touchstone--if you consider shock jock Howard Stern mooning last year’s audience a defining moment.

Howard Handler, senior vice president of marketing, says the show works because it’s a good cross-pollination of music and TV. It also works because MTV promotes it like crazy, as any regular viewer or record store habitue knows.

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Handler is only slightly guilty of hyperbole when he says: “It’s hard to be anywhere and not know this thing is coming. You’d have to be hiding somewhere, or sealed off from the media.”

In the end, of course, the show derives its real cachet from its all-star musical lineup, which this year includes U2, Janet Jackson, Sting, Lenny Kravitz, Naughty by Nature and Soul Asylum. While the Grammys are still seen as more prestigious, MTV has the market cornered when it comes to young music fans.

The people who made pop culture icons of Beavis and Butt-head have sustained fan interest in the show by mixing established acts with those just breaking through.

“You never know which band is going to steal the show,” said Judy McGrath, MTV’s creative director. “It’s a great opportunity to platform some of the new bands.”

While the show is held to roughly three hours, McGrath says there’s enough record company interest to put on a modern-day version of Woodstock, which lasted three days. That’s a far cry from its beginnings 10 years ago, when MTV had to plead to get acts to appear on a show saluting music videos, which were then still something of a curiosity.

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Industry sources say acts such as Pearl Jam, R.E.M., the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Bobby Brown all expanded their audiences by participating in the show. The Cure, which is now a mega-band, had its American live-performance debut on the MTV awards. And Madonna’s acts of outrageousness have become a staple of the event. She’s opening this year’s program.

Not everyone in the business is a fan of the show. Some record industry executives say MTV’s bookers do plenty of arm twisting. “They let you know you better be there,” said one, who added that a lot of performers are ambivalent because they believe MTV exposure cuts into their concert business.

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On the other hand, Jim Guerinot, the senior vice president and general manager of A&M; Records, says record sales always increase after acts appear. Sting canceled or rescheduled several dates on his European tour to be there.

“Some artists still resist, but not many,” Guerinot said. “In general, the MTV awards have a great rock vibe. They’re also pretty irreverent, and people gravitate toward that.”

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BMG Rumblings: Bertelsmann Music Group, which has been sniffing around the movie business for a long time, is said to be taking a close look at Orion Pictures now. The German-owned entertainment conglomerate has perused the company’s library and held talks with Orion executives, according to sources. But those same sources say it’s too early to predict the outcome, since Bertelsmann has courted other companies before, most recently Castle Rock Entertainment, pre-Ted Turner. Both companies declined to comment on the rumor.

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Hanky Time: Who ever said Walt Disney Co. isn’t sensitive? Employees handed out tissues following a screening of the emotionally charged drama “The Joy Luck Club” on Saturday. Disney has high expectations for the film adaptation of the best-selling book, which was produced by its Hollywood Pictures division. It’s hoping that teary-eyed preview audiences will create an upsurge of interest in the film, thereby creating tears of joy when Oscar nominations are announced.


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