COVER STORY : After All, Life Isn’t Just a Video : MTV, the channel that made its name with wall-to-wall music videos, has become a full-service ‘lifestyle network,’ much to the consternation of the big record companies, which are teaming up to launch their own channel
Jack Noseworthy, wearing bulky black boots and a ripped green army jacket with sleeves hanging past his hands, storms after Lisa Dean Ryan inside the faded gold lobby of the Belasco Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. She looks like a waif, with her dark hair chopped short and her belly bare under the peace flower emblazoned on her cutoff T-shirt.
The two actors are shooting the new half-hour TV series “Dead at 21,” MTV’s first foray into action-adventure that might best be described as grunge on the run. They are playing Ed and Maria, two tattered 20-year-olds who are framed for murder and must stay one step ahead of a mad-dog federal agent while searching desperately for the doctor who implanted a computer chip in Ed’s skull when he was born as part of a 1970s government plot to create super-smart human beings.
Unfortunately for Ed, the patients--or neuro-cybernauts, as they’re called--self-destruct when they reach adulthood at the age of 21.
All the head-banging action, shot on 16-millimeter film throughout Southern California, is played out on screen like an extended music video--with extreme hand-held camera movement, colorful lighting, fast cuts and strobe effects, backed by a constant stream of music that ranges from the Spin Doctors to Enya to Smashing Pumpkins to Snoop Doggy Dogg. The series airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m.
Noseworthy grabs Ryan’s arm and spins her around on her platform heels.
“I think we should help him,” he says, referring to Maria’s father.
“Ed, that man stole me from my mom when I was a baby . He told me she was dead when she was alive. Just so I could help him run his cons,” she counters. “I could have known her, Ed. I could have known my mom before she died.”
Circling the two actors is a camera operator, Harry Garvin, moving into their faces and back out, tilting the camera on his shoulders from side to side like a lolling ship at sea.
“I don’t know what to say,” Noseworthy says. “But I do know what it feels like to lose a family, and if you’ve got a chance to patch things up, I think you should take it.”
“He’s trouble, Ed, and he’s gonna get us in trouble.”
Displaced from their parents. Distrusting authority. Dismissed by a society pitted against them. And adulthood spells death. In many ways, “Dead at 21" is the ultimate teen-age paranoia come to life. And that’s exactly how the producers hope to hook the nation’s alienated youth.
But it’s not the only way. Executives at MTV are exploring an increasing number of entertainment alternatives to capture the wandering eyeballs and imaginations of young viewers these days. The basic cable channel that made an indelible stamp on pop culture in the 1980s by playing wall-to-wall music videos and specials has slowly expanded into a full-service “lifestyle network” to maintain the legions of followers it created over the past decade.
MTV is now running its first scripted drama series, “Catwalk,” chronicling the ups and downs of a struggling garage band. A real-life soap opera, “The Real World,” and a sketch comedy series, “The State,” are prepping new seasons. MTV’s late-night talk show, “The Jon Stewart Show,” has been so well received that Viacom, MTV’s parent company, is trying to sell it into broadcast syndication to replace “The Arsenio Hall Show.”
Then there’s a game show (“Trashed”) in which contestants compete to destroy each other’s property. A sports magazine (“MTV Sports”) with radical footage of in-line skaters, surfers and mountain bikers. A news program (“Week in Rock”) whose chief correspondent, Tabitha Soren, is on a first-name basis with President Clinton. A concert series (“MTV Unplugged”) that has spawned platinum record albums. A fashion show (“House of Style”) hosted by super-model Cindy Crawford.
And did we mention “Beavis and Butt-head,” the two cretinous cartoon characters who--heh-heh-heh--are the scourge of parents and educators everywhere?
“Our fans look forward to seeing the new ideas we try,” said Joe Davola, senior vice president of MTV Productions and MTV Development, who is now overseeing the development of MTV’s first sitcom. “They’re fine if we fail; they get upset if we don’t try. We have to change. Our audience expects us to change. The world changes, so do we. Once we stop, that’s when it’s over for us. We have to keep reinventing ourselves.”
But at a price. These different forms of programming have drawn heavy criticism from the network’s primary supplier--the recording industry.
The booming record labels produce music videos to promote and market their artists. To them, MTV is a big electronic billboard that has managed to retain the rare attention of a restless generation of young people. At least 80% of MTV’s daily schedule still revolves around music videos, including the afternoon and much of prime time, but that’s not enough for record executives, who are tired of being squeezed out by late-night reruns of “Speed Racer” and shows like “Lip Service,” a lip-sync talent contest.
“We feel like we’re at the mercy of MTV,” said one senior record executive, “and we don’t want to be at the mercy of anybody. It’s just as simple as that. We want another option.”
So four of the six major record companies that normally compete fiercely against one another in the $9-billion domestic recording industry have raised the white flag to address the issue. Warner Music Group, Sony Software, EMI Music and PolyGram Holding, which own or distribute the majority of all music released in the world, formed a partnership with Ticketmaster Corp. earlier this year to launch their own music video channel by year’s end.
The record companies will continue to license videos to MTV--the only programmer to pay for music videos--but they will most likely use their channel for exclusive premieres of big videos and to sell tapes, compact discs and other merchandise.
“Clearly there are more music videos made than can go on MTV,” said Jordan Rost, vice president of marketing for Warner Music Group. “And when MTV puts on a program that has content other than music videos, it narrows the number of available slots for us. The music industry is not putting out fewer releases because MTV decided to add more non-music video programming. Therefore, we know our product can fill the time a new channel can provide.
“Record companies are more interested in having a channel with a strong music focus, as opposed to a more general lifestyle focus for the young adult audience. We want to be the cable channel purely dedicated to music.”
MTV professes not to be worried by the potential competition.
“You have to stay ahead of the curve. We have never stopped planning and experimenting,” countered Judy McGrath, president and creative director of MTV, who sees programming explorations as an important part of MTV’s unique identity in a marketplace suddenly humming with music video outlets. “I firmly believe the competition for MTV is going to come from some kid sitting at home in his garage or behind his computer, who has really fresh ideas, and somebody decides to let him take a shot at it.
“I don’t spend my time worrying about record companies getting together to compete with us,” she continued, “because I really believe it’s a creative battle. The goal is to create a music environment that’s going to be interesting to the audience and bring them in to watch more videos.”
MTV has expanded beyond music videos for numerous reasons--beginning with ratings. TV watching is a habit, and channel executives believe they can recruit more loyal viewers by giving them something regular to tune in to. Most of the shows produced by MTV get their viewers involved in a way that music videos don’t--acting as a giant watering hole for America’s youth to gather, get information and generally just rock on.
Original programming also helps make MTV the master of its own destiny, by reducing its reliance on the record industry to consistently supply quality videos. It makes the channel more visible in TV guides, where for a long time MTV wasn’t carried because there were no real programs to list. And perhaps most important, advertisers are paying a premium to place commercials in such heavily promoted shows as “The Real World” and “Beavis and Butt-head,” because they know kids watch them more intensely than they do an endless montage of music videos.
Jon Sherman, the fledgling writer of the “Dead at 21" pilot, was 22 when the network helped him develop his ideas for the show in 1992. He epitomizes the split take on MTV.
“When I was growing up, I didn’t like MTV,” he said. “I wanted to listen to music and I didn’t want to watch music. I became a fan when MTV started doing stuff that was programming oriented. A lot of my friends complained that MTV was becoming so lame, putting shows on instead of music videos. I said, ‘That’s why I’m watching it.’ Different people enjoy different things.”
MTV launched in 1981 with 250 music videos. For a number of years, when there were few cable channels and music videos were a novelty and Michael Jackson was a thriller, MTV’s ratings were competitive with other major cable networks. MTV was promoted as a beachhead for channel surfers. During commercials on other channels, people were encouraged to flip over to catch a quick music video on MTV, the first real channel for the remote-control age.
But while MTV’s prestige soared, its ratings plummeted. They only started to show signs of recovery in the last two years, when the network really started pushing different forms of programming.
For the first quarter of this year, roughly 236,000 homes were watching MTV in the average quarter-hour throughout the day, with 354,000 tuning in during prime time. That’s a low number compared to basic cable’s top-rated network, Turner Network Television, with an average of 1.5 million homes watching last month during prime time. But MTV’s numbers are actually up 18% from the first quarter a year ago, according to network officials.
“One thing MTV found about programming music videos--you’re basically encouraging viewers to shut you off,” said Erica Gruen, a senior vice president and cable buyer at the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi in New York. “When you give them bits and pieces, you can’t sustain their interest for a half-hour, an hour or more. That was their whole premise when they started: We’re going to provide music-video bits. You can tune in and tune out. But if you do that, you lose your viewership base, and advertisers aren’t too happy with that.”
MTV’s major divergence from music-video programming began in 1987 with the dance show “Club MTV,” the news program “Week in Rock” and “Remote Control,” a game show testing college students’ knowledge of music and TV trivia.
“When we first stepped into this world of programming with video or music or pop culture references, we did it with the interest of shaking up the format, keeping it interesting, giving people something to talk about and write about,” McGrath said. “Music is about a lot of different topics--fashion, love, money, sex--why not make some programming that reflects contemporary culture the way music does?”
Advertisers suddenly began taking interest because they could selectively place commercials in specific programs, rather than take their chances in a block of music videos. “Not all advertisers are comfortable being in a music-video environment,” Gruen said. “As we all know, the content for some of the music videos has more sex and violence than other types of television, and portrays situations that some advertisers and viewers don’t feel comfortable with and don’t want to be seen in.”
MTV executives say all their alternative programming serves one purpose: to encourage viewers to stick around and watch music videos. “Music videos are our bread and butter,” McGrath said. She vows that they will never dip below 80% of the channel’s total programming. “The viewers come to us for music,” McGrath said. “I want to keep their faith. When they come there will be a video in a short time.”
Another advantage to producing its own shows is that MTV can establish a greater presence outside the cable-TV universe. Its shows feed into a marketing whirlwind that sweeps in wider audiences.
MTV Productions, for example, is developing feature films based on “Beavis and Butt-head” and “Joe’s Apartment,” a short filler from MTV’s promo department about a guy whose pad is infested with friendly cockroaches. And MTV has become a prominent launching pad for non-music personalities. Comic Denis Leary’s ranting-and-raving MTV promos led to a comedy album and a budding feature film career. “MTV Sports” host Dan Cortese turned his gig into two starring roles in broadcast network series. Tabitha Soren is an NBC News correspondent specializing in pop culture. And MTV’s production unit will continue to produce “Jon Stewart” for Paramount Television, which was recently bought by Viacom.
“Basically, MTV is like the 0 to 60 network,” Davola said. “You get on, you get high visibility, you get high recognition.” And when those personalities go on to bigger things, that notoriety rubs off on MTV. Pauly Shore still hosts programs on MTV at the same time he’s starring in such movies for the Walt Disney Co. as “Son in Law” and the upcoming “In the Army Now.”
“MTV is about new talent and the next thing , whatever that thing may be,” McGrath said. “We’re kind of like a farm team for new ideas.”
So what’s in the farm system right now? Following up on the runaway success of “Beavis and Butt-head” on MTV will be the August premiere of “The Brothers Grunt,” created by Danny Antonucci (“Lupo the Butcher”), about a clan of brothers who leave their monastery to search for their runaway brother. This fall will bring the premiere of two more cartoons: “The Head,” featuring the symbiotic relationship between a man and the alien in his head, and Sam Keith’s homeless superhero “Maxx.” In addition, “Aeon Flux,” the espionage character from “Liquid Television” who wears a black leather G-string and massacres hundreds with her ray gun, will get her own series next summer.
MTV just ordered a series called “Sand Blaster,” an elaborate sun-and-sand version of “American Gladiators.” And comedian Anthony Clark and the hip-hop group TLC are among several artists working on their own short comedy films. “We’re developing these shorts to be prototypes for a half-hour (sitcom),” Davola said. “We will put then in rotation this summer. If one hits, we’ll put on a pilot, and if we like that, we’ll create a series.”
“We have no control over when and where and how we get videos,” McGrath said. “Sometimes you go through a real drought, when you’re hoping for something new and interesting, or some big proven star the audience wants to see. So now we can rely on our own creative juices to create programming and not just wait for the next Pink Floyd record.”
“It is not my perception that there’s a shortage of good music videos, but rather a shortage of time to air those videos,” responded Susan Solomon, president and CEO of SW Networks, a joint venture between Sony Software and Warner Music Group to produce, create and distribute music programming to everything from digital cable radio to computer on-line services. “It’s much less expensive to help people produce better music videos than to engage in much more expensive long-form production. That strikes me as a little odd.”
The record companies are not the only ones that believe MTV is vulnerable to healthy competition. In anticipation of a 500-channel cable universe, the marketplace for music videos is suddenly spinning at high speed.
On July 1, the country’s sixth-largest cable operator, Cablevision Systems, will begin feeding the Canadian music video network MuchMusic to its 3 million subscribers. Black Entertainment Television is planning a separate jazz network in October. The easy-listening MOR Music TV, now available in 10 million homes, is launching a second music video channel with home shopping. Videos are also prime fodder on the Nashville Network, Country Music Television and the viewer-request channel, the Box. And there are 250 regional music video shows running on local cable channels and VHF stations around the country.
But a tough regulatory environment, with strict cable rate rollbacks recently issued by the Federal Communications Commission, is holding major new efforts at bay for now. Just last week, the owner of RCA Records and Tele-Communications Inc., the country’s biggest cable operator, cited “changing market conditions” as the reason for scrapping a music-video network they had scheduled for launch later this year. Even the record companies seem stalled in their designs until they find another cable partner--although they are now in discussions with TCI.
“There’s no real distinct game plan,” said a source close to the proceedings. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, we’re going to do this. Let’s put together a game plan.’ But nothing has happened since then. It was announced for the end of the year, but I’ll be shocked if it happens by then.”
As a result, the next major music video channel to rival MTV’s influence in 59 million cable homes may come from . . . MTV. An aggressive game plan is afoot at the parent MTV Networks, one that involves global expansion and a dramatic renaissance of MTV’s sister station, VH-1. Up until now, MTV has treated VH-1 something like what Beavis might call a red-headed stepchild. VH-1 began as Video Hits One in 1985, four years after MTV, and loosely targeted baby boomers, first with Lionel Richie and Rod Stewart videos and later with reruns of “WKRP in Cincinnati.”
In the coming months, VH-1 plans to lop off the baby boomer generation--they’re too old now--to “create a greater music programming synergy” between MTV and VH-1. Current and breaking music videos will spill over from MTV onto VH-1 in a cross-promotional strategy to let viewers know that both channels are out there, working hand in hand to deliver a barrage of music.
Ultimately, executives hope to synchronize programming to the point that, at any time of the day, either MTV or VH-1 will be playing music videos, and viewers will never for an instant be denied their MTV.
“We definitely feel like there’s growth potential for VH-1 that has not been optimized,” said Andy Schuon, the former program director who helped KROQ-FM in Los Angeles become an instrumental force in shaping the alternative rock world. He was recently named senior vice president of music programming and program planning to spearhead the musical unification of MTV and VH-1.
“Specifically, we have decided to make a concerted effort to properly synchronize the two channels better, to make them work together better,” Schuon said. “If we’re going to stay true to our core, we can’t grow with our consumers like some products do. We’d like to hand off our MTV viewers at some point to VH-1.”
MTV Networks does have eventual designs to spin off several new channels featuring different music genres--a plan announced years ago--and to get into merchandising everything from clothes to CDs. But until the cable universe opens up to new ventures, MTV Networks seems to be exploiting the assets it has. At a time when new channels are being frozen out, VH-1 has a solid 48.4 million subscribers, or 83% of the country’s cable television homes.
MTV currently targets viewers 12 to 34, and beginning later this year, VH-1 will reach out to viewers 25 to 44, who are moving out of that younger age range but grew up on MTV. The MTV moniker has become a successful trademark and the envy of the TV industry, helping MTV achieve a global reach in 248 million homes in 58 countries. VH-1 hopes to develop its own distinct personality and point of view, while providing programming to meet its audience’s needs.
“We want to focus specifically on the universe of people MTV carved out,” Schuon said. “The group of people who are familiar with music videos, who like music videos, who still use music to shape and define their lives, who need more music information and who want to know what’s going on in pop culture.”
Ironically, MTV helped create the monstrous music industry that seems to have risen up against it. A few years ago, album sales were in the dumps. Alternative rock received no air time on mainstream radio until Nirvana exploded on MTV, swinging the direction of modern music, and “Yo! MTV Raps,” a daily block of rap videos, led a rap revolution.
The now thriving music industry has resulted in more albums from a wider variety of new artists who are making a torrent of music videos. MTV receives 30 to 50 videos a week from the record labels--produced at costs ranging from $25,000 for low-budget productions to $150,000 or more for expensive ones--but can’t make room for more than 10 of them.
“The one constituency most forgotten about by MTV is the record company,” said one music executive. “To a great degree, MTV is calling all the shots now. They have more people who want to be on MTV than they want to put on. In the old days, when MTV was starting out, the record industry called the shots. When you leave someone out of your tent and don’t serve their need, they will find an alternative.”
McGrath vehemently denies the scattered record industry comments that MTV has become a music video monopoly. “If we had that attitude we would be out of business,” she said. “That is very offensive to me.”
To expose new music, MTV has specifically created music video shows like “Alternative Nation” and “120 Minutes” for alternative music, “Headbangers Ball” for hard rock and “The Grind” for dance tunes. The other forms of programming MTV delves into usually showcase music, too--from the steady tunes that score “The Real World” and “Dead at 21" to the campy music videos that Beavis and Butt-head provide a running commentary on (“This is cool,” “This sucks”).
“We do try and do a good job to present (the record companies’) music and create an environment for it,” McGrath said. “We struggle every day to play the new videos they give us, and to find a place to play them.”
The competition to get music videos played is exquisite. One music executive accused MTV of sequestering Schuon from people at the labels, who are always calling and pleading their cases to play new videos and break new groups.
But Schuon said he feels the pressure, even though he has a staff that sits down and talks with label representatives to hear their needs. “I get mail, faxes, phone calls. The pressure is intense,” Schuon said. “When I was at KROQ, the pressure was there, but the truth is we were an alternative radio station, and more times than not the supply met the demand. At MTV, on the other hand, we choose to play music from rock to Top 40, from alternative to progressive, from hip-hop to rap. We define our channel as a musically diverse one.
“By doing that, there’s always more supply, and I mean good supply, than we can play. We can’t make the hour any longer. We can squeeze in about 10 videos an hour on television, and that’s about it. If you’re not going to limit your audience (to one genre), you’re going to be faced with a space problem. So you pick the best of what you can, and no one is going to be happy all the time.”
MTV takes credit for breaking such successful artists as Arrested Development, Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, Counting Crows and Snoop Doggy Dogg. MTV devised “Buzz Bin,” a graphic slapped on fringe music videos, to help gain some attention for them. “We absolutely jump on new music with diversity you won’t find anywhere, and more quickly than we ever have,” McGrath said. “Whether it’s Pantera, Soundgarden, the Brand New Heavies, whoever it is--people saw them first on MTV before they heard them on the radio or could buy them in the record store.”
Not everyone agrees.
“Historically, MTV has followed rather than led in the breaking of acts,” said a creative development executive at one of the record companies. “They like to see themselves as a powerful force in exposing new music, and they are. On the other side of things, they don’t play something until they’re pretty darned convinced it’s going to be a hit and they won’t be hung out to dry.”
Record labels are now cozying up to dozens of alternative music-video outlets springing up around the country. “Record labels love us, because MTV doesn’t program much M anymore,” said Paul Carchidi, the creator of “Rage.” Carchidi, an entertainment attorney, pays $1,750 for an hour of time every Friday night on Boston superstation WSBK-TV38, and then he sells his own advertising. Two weeks ago, his show clobbered MTV in the local ratings.
“Rage” has done live interviews with k.d. lang and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and has helped break such bands as Sweden’s Whale, whose song “Hobo Humpin’ Slobo Babe” received a flurry of national radio and MTV airplay after it was introduced on “Rage.” Columbia Records credits “Rage” with the worldwide video premiere of the Chicago group Stabbing Westward--leading to consumer demand and the opening spot for the current Depeche Mode tour--six weeks before MTV played the group’s video “Normal” on “120 Minutes.”
“MTV has dropped the ball in terms of music,” Carchidi said. “They used to educate people about new music and break bands. They don’t care anymore. They’re looking for the ratings point.”
The record companies, according to sources, have discussed a hefty $100-million business plan to launch their new channel. “They’re doing it for the same reason you find entertainment companies owning TV channels, or movie companies owning theater chains,” explained Jeffrey Logsdon, an entertainment analyst for Seidler Amdec Securities. “You have a greater control over your distribution destiny. You can help create demand by playing what you believe are popular music videos, and that will help spur CD or cassette sales.”
“If you look at the record companies, they basically had real good years and the real question is: How do you maintain and increase the retail pie, and continue to further the interest in music?” said Solomon with SW Networks.
Those kind of attitudes could lead to problems, observed Deborah Russell, music video editor for Billboard magazine: “I’m mystified how they will program the channel, when you have different labels competing for time. Who gets the heavy rotation? It would seem they would be better off each doing their own channel.”
MTV’s Schuon said that if the record companies succeed in getting their channel off the ground, they will eventually face the same “choose or lose” dilemma MTV did. “The truth is, if record companies feel disappointed in what they are getting on MTV and want to start their own channel, they’re going to have to put on the best music possible to make it a successful business,” he said.
“If they’re going to be true to the core of their audience and not just use their channel as a marketing tool, they’re going to have to consider playing artists that aren’t their own, and artists who audiences wants to watch on TV--whether or not it’s their personal priority. That’s where compromise comes in. That’s what you can’t lose track of--the audience.”