Cable is alive with the sound of music — basic cable, that is. Pay-per-view, once a bastion of music on cable, presented just 15 concert events in 2001.
Those events generated just $3 million, compared with $190 million for wrestling and $93 million for top boxing attractions, according to Showtime Event Television's annual PPV review.
By contrast, basic networks have added more music to their schedules, and have debuted new concert series and specials. Not only are performances being shown more frequently on MTV: Music Television, VH1, MuchMusic USA, Bravo, CMT: Country Music Television and A&E Network — they're also turning up on more unlikely outlets, like Oxygen and WE: Women's Entertainment.
This programming surge marks another chapter in the long-running relationship between live music and cable television.
Cable's music history can be traced back to Home Box Office's very first live national broadcast, the Pennsylvania Polka Festival
in 1975. The following year, Bette Midler inaugurated the premium network's "In Concert" series, and superstars like Michael Jackson, Madonna, Barbara Streisand, Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen have all produced concert specials for HBO. Showtime has also been on the stage, with performers like Diana Ross.
Basic cable's concert legacy is also impressive. MTV's acoustic and intimate Unplugged
series broke new ground in the 1980s. In the 1990s, VH1 allowed musicians to stretch out their works in its Storytellers
Radio's long-running Grand Old Opry,
for its part, made the leap to television on TNN: The National Network's predecessor, The Nashville Network, and the show now appears on CMT, a sister MTV Networks outlet.
MUSICIANS ON BOARD
And in the mid-1990s, A&E introduced at-home audience participation to the genre with Live by Request, in which the set list is largely dictated by viewer phone calls and Internet feedback. Now, A&E's Breakfast with the Arts
exposes its audience to classical music legends and newcomers on stage and in-studio conversations.
Fortunately for cable, musicians seeking to broaden their exposure have been quite receptive to programmers' overtures, and recent events have accelerated that trend.
Musicians took a double hit last year, losing revenue from concert cancellations after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and from a major drop in CD sales.
"Because revenue has been down, performers are more willing to do cable shows," said Oxygen talent and music programming vice president Julie Insogna, who worked at MTV during the Unplugged
era. "They're also more willing to do them because of the unique approaches the shows take."
Indeed, most of the new concert programming on cable rests on eliciting more than songs from the performer, or placing the performers in a unique venue.
"The doll is live music, and in order for this doll to be successful, you always have to find a way to dress it up," said Black Entertainment Television music programming vice president Stephen Hill.
Added Bravo senior vice president of programming and production Frances Berwick: "It's difficult to make most concerts work on TV the same way they do on a stage with a live audience, so you include ways to get to know the performer with the performances."
A GIVEN AT MTV
At MTV, because music is at the heart of the channel, reinventing concert presentations is a given.
"The challenge for us is to make sure there's something unique," said MTV senior vice president of music programming and talent Tom Calderone. "How you are unique could be in pairing particular artists, or a way to use cameras, or focus on the backstage stuff.
"If the artist gets watered down in all sorts of outlets, the experience with them stops being special."
Melissa Etheridge became cable's poster musician last year. She appeared alone on acoustic guitar for a VH1 upfront concert at New York's Supper Club, which was broadcast last July, just four months after a show on Oxygen. She also played a short set at the post-Sept. 11 Concert for New York City (televised live on VH1), and taped a concert inside Grand Central Station for play Christmas night on MuchMusic.
WE repeated that show in January, as part of the series We Got the Beat.
MuchMusic programming vice president Norm Schoenfeld called WE's decision to run the Etheridge concert a rare synergy experience and doesn't think the performer overexposed herself.
"Cable can handle concerts, provided the venue is unique or the format is unique," he said.
WE general manager Martin Von Ruden, another MTV alumni, originally nixed the Etheridge special because of her VH1 and Oxygen appearances.
"But when MuchMusic came up with the idea of Grand Central, we reconsidered and concluded it was special enough to go forward," he said.
NOT JUST A CONCERT
At A&E, the creation of its A&E In Concert
specials was venue-driven. "Live by Request
is so much fun, but not everything should be shoehorned into that format," said Delia Fine, the network's vice president of film, drama and performing-arts programming. "Some artists have creative ideas about how they want their music approached on TV, and we created this series to handle them."
Three episodes have run so far, with Billy Joel appearing at a college masters class, Sting celebrating his 50th birthday among friends in the backyard of his European villa — hours after learning about the terrorist attacks — and The Three Tenors originating from the Forbidden City of China.
Like Live By Request, the specials draw upscale audiences aged 25 to 54. But viewership in the 25-to-35 age group has increased.
Fine has up to four In Concert
shows lined up for 2002, with another quartet of Live by Request
shows also planned.
Under Insogna, Oxygen tried two concert formats in 2001: Up Close and Personal, in which the studio audience asked questions of the performer throughout the show, and Custom Concerts, where the performer's outfit, the set design and other details were chosen by viewers beforehand from a list posted on the network's Web site.
A May 3 India.Arie special falls under the Up Close and Personal
banner. Insogna anticipates three segments in each format this year, largely targeting women aged 18 to 40.
MTV's new concert concept is Jammed, in which a concert comes together on the fly, with only 24 to 48 hours of warning for all involved — band, producers and fans.
SUM-41 was featured in the pilot episode last October. Last month, No Doubt became the first featured act of 2002. MTV plans up to 10 shows this year.
goes forward, Calderone's crew will continue Road Home, in which the featured acts return to the scene of their first encounters with fame. At least four episodes are slated to appear in 2002.
VH1 recently delayed its own version of Jammed
— the weekly series Guerilla Concerts
— at the last minute.
Like the MTV effort, Guerilla
sets up performances on short notice. The difference is that venues hold personal connections to the performers, from the outside of a Home Depot store to the inside of a karaoke bar. Alanis Morrisette, Barenaked Ladies, Nickelback and Five for Fighting participated in the initial episodes.
VH1 executive vice president of programming and production Fred Graver acknowledges the similarities with MTV's project, but denies they were behind the change in plans.
"We developed this format completely independent from MTV," he said. "After shooting three episodes, we saw that something happened with each performance, showing us a different way to frame the series from what we started out doing."
is now expected to launch in the summer, he said.
premiered on Bravo in February. Aimed at adults 25 to 54, the series mixes performance with short conversation segments before a live audience. The first six-episode batch played through mid-March and earned critical acclaim. Another six are expected to run during the second half of 2002.
'WE GOT THE BEAT'
WE's We Got the Beat
concert collection highlights artists with some "history" among the channel's 25-to-54 female demographic.
"Our audience wants songs they know by heart, or a night of nostalgia that makes them feel like a girl again," said Von Ruden. "That's why you get a Pat Benatar on this show."
Benatar did her first TV concert in a decade for WE. The channel is considering another package of We Got the Beat
shows later in 2002.
At MuchMusic, Schoenfeld wants to do more specials in the Etheridge vein.
"Think of it as a reality concert where the audience doesn't have to buy their way to get into the show. We want more efforts where the performer interacts with both the crowd and the environment," he said.
MuchMusic currently has six to 10 specials in development.
BET's concert selections are aimed at 18-to-24 or 18-to-35-year-old viewers. The principal outlet is Blueprint, a concert/talk hybrid with such talent as Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z and Outkast.
The show centers on what was happening in the performer's life at the time their songs were written, said Hill.
In February, A Celebration of Gospel
featured Destiny's Child and other hot stars performing gospel music alongside Shirley Caesar and other luminaries from the field.