Reports of the demise of music on television have been greatly exaggerated. True, mainstay players MTV and VH1 have long abandoned their virtually-all-music-video programming strategies, and in recent months the music stopped for two networks dedicated exclusively to videos: the now-defunct The Tube and International Music Feed. But the truth is music lovers never had it so good.
As the TV universe continues to expand, encompassing digital networks and on-demand, as well as Web sites and mobile phones, there has actually been an explosion of new and innovative music programming.
The result is a palpable excitement about music that “feels like the old MTV days,” said Rick Krim, executive vice president of music and talent programming at VH1, who started at MTV in 1982. “Trust me, it wasn’t that way for a while.
“And today it’s not just 24 hours on one channel of one thing like it was back then,” he added. “It’s not just one avenue anymore. We have all these different pieces adding up to even more opportunities.”
“The reach and volume of music is greater than it has ever been,” said Courtney Holt, executive vice president of digital music and media for MTV Networks’ Music & Logo Group.
The biggest change has been the growth of the secondary platforms, online and, to a lesser extent at this point, on-demand and mobile.
Even gaming has become a viable platform — last year MTVN bought Harmonix, the developer of the wildly popular Guitar Hero; the company has now released Rock Band, which adds other instruments to the mix.
These platforms have become the new home for music videos, an ideal place for short-form programming, especially because they let the viewer pick and choose.
“The luxury of on-demand and the Internet is that the consumer can control the content and that makes it better suited to music videos,” said Fuse president Eric Sherman.
“Year after year people are getting more comfortable consuming videos online,” Holt said. “The Web sites are more usable, the videos are more findable and the quality is better in terms of image and sound.”
One of the biggest challenges now for networks that show older videos is gaining clearance. VH1Classic.com, for instance, has 5,000 videos and plans to launch thousands more this year, but Krim said gaining clearance is “a quagmire.”
But MTVN’s Web sites logged more than 1.2 billion video streams last year — 30% more than in 2006 — with music videos comprising about half of those streams. (MTVN’s mobile usage saw triple-digit growth last year, but from a much smaller base.)
At Great American Country, online traffic to choose its year-end top 50 videos was up 50% over the previous year, according to senior vice president of programming Sarah Trahern.
“Everything is now a multitiered, multiphased cross-platform plan,” said MTV senior vice president for talent and music Amy Doyle.
Fuse’s Sherman agrees, saying, “we look at Fuse as a multiplatform brand first and foremost.
The shift to Web sites as the main home for videos is also a boon artistically, according to Jay Frank, senior vice president of music strategy for CMT. “There’s more leeway there,” he said. “You can take more risks than you would on big cable networks and then videos can explode online.”
But Frank and his colleagues believe the biggest change in music television is the de facto instant consumer research that Web usage provides. “We can see how an audience reacts,” Doyle said. “It is one of the best tools for feedback — we see it in real time. It’s about giving audiences control and a voice.”
In the case of MTVN, that real-time feedback might come in the form of traffic generated by a new band on the Web site for college-crowd-targeted mtvU, which could in turn lead to airtime on that network, then conceivably a bump to MTV2 and then even to Total Request Live or another opportunity on the flagship network.
Frank also notes that Web video sites like YouTube have made viewers more accepting of low-budget, but creative, production values. Three years ago, Frank said he would have laughed at someone pitching a video costing under $5,000, but now CMT has run two within recent months. “That bodes well for creativity,” he said.
MTV Networks has set up “Addicted to Noise,” an online venue for new artists to submit material and build a fan base. “This can help us find the next generation of great artists first,” Krim said. “We are long past the day when only major label artists get a shot.”
Most networks now use viewers’ online choices as countdown-type programming on their linear networks. “Viewers tell us what they want to get on the air,” GAC’s Trahern said.
“Viewers are not passive, they know what they like and what they don’t like,” MTV’s Doyle added.
Sherman agrees that countdown shows and the like “give viewers a voice and the more you engage them the more they are part of the family.” But he stressed that feedback is ultimately just one tool in the networks’ toolbox. “We need to respond to viewer tastes but they want the networks to make choices,” he said. “As Internet choices have multiplied, we need to guide our audience and curate the music.”
Holt said the networks are also using what they learn from online usage to help viewers navigate around multiplatform content. In 2007, MTVN became the first to thread lyrics throughout programming across all platforms — searching for lines from a song will call up the full lyrics, a link to the video, an artist biography and a chance to purchase the song.
“We found that lyrics were the top search term but before that we weren’t offering the lyrics and all these illegal sites were,” Holt said. “Now viewers are spending more time on our site, and typing lyrics into search engines is leading them to our site.”
To truly engage an audience, Holt said, requires going even further in terms of offering viewers more choice. For example, mtvU’s Web site offers “Breaking the Video,” in which college students pitch a video concept for an emerging band. The band travels to the winner’s campus where the student gets to direct or produce the video, which will ultimately run on the Web site and network.
“VH1’s Hip Hop Honors” had a soundtrack created by the winner of its “The Score” contest; and now, through Addicted to Noise, VH1 has launched “The Track with Flavor Flav,” in which aspiring producers upload original audio tracks (sans vocals) for Flavor Flav’s consideration — fans vote online for the winner, who will record and co-produce his next single this spring.
MTV’s Web site features a “Video Remixer” that allows users to make their own videos. Recently, visitors were able to access clips and photos to assemble their own video for Britney Spears’ “Piece of Me.” More than 8,200 online visitors voted on their favorite entry, and the winning video was shown on the network’s Total Request Live.
“A music video is no longer fresh if you’ve seen it five times, but with this concept you’re creating your own expression in 20 to 30 minutes,” Holt said. “If people do it [and] then promote it to their friends on social networks to go vote on MTV.com, we can get a million incremental viewers.”
Doyle sees all these new paths as ways for fans, artists and networks to connect. “Five years ago we weren’t having these conversations,” she said. “Now an artist can say, 'I’d love to have an avatar in your virtual world’ and then they can premiere a video there. They can mingle with fans from their laptop.”
Doyle cited the band Korn as early artists to embrace the virtual world. “It’s a chance to go deeper with the artists,” she said. “We’re going to see more of that. So we have to be very flexible and fluid.”
Fluid is also an apt description of linear channels’ efforts to find fresh ways of injecting music into their programming lineups without relying on videos.
MTVN outlets have several music-based shows in their lineups. VH1 has revived its dormant Storytellers brand for artists like Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige and Snoop Dogg — though Krim says rather than scrambling to fill a season of Storytellers, VH1 will use it opportunistically to “keep the bar high.” CMT has established shows such as Crossroads, as well as new ones such as Invitation Only, which adds audience Q&A to an Unplugged-style format, and an American Idol-style fan participation show called Can You Duet.
MTV’s “52/52” campaign devotes about 11 hours of airtime in a single week to a particular artist via original spots during promotions for the network’s other programming. The impact can be explosive, said Doyle, who noted the impact the spots have had for a band like Paramore. “After 52/52, Paramore’s downloads and album sales went up 123%,” she said. (According to Franks, CMT is looking for a way to adapt the concept.)
The most important project for MTV and VH1, Krim said, is the effort to work music into the network’s reality shows in a careful and productive way. “The reality shows are our bread-and-butter now but our mandate has always been to be true to the music brand,” Krim said. “It is now being done with more strategy.”
MTVN has created a centralized unit called the Creative Music Integration Group and is bringing all the shows’ music supervisors in-house to have them report to CMI. Krim said that the idea is to integrate music from specific bands into programming and promos for shows, even offering chyrons — the graphics that run at the bottom of the screen — with artist and song information on the screen.
Producers “see that it will make the shows better and more distinctive” if they are associated with established or emerging artists, Krim said, pointing out that indie pop artist Ingrid Michaelson saw an immediate spike in iTunes sales after being featured during a promo for reality show My Fair Brady.
At Fuse, Sherman has resharpened the network’s music focus — something that had been blurred by popular but tangential shows such as the amateur striptease Pants-Off Dance Off and sketch comedy Whitest Kids U’ Know.
Both shows have been dropped from Fuse’s TV lineup. In their place, the network is running interview programs such as Planet Rock and long-form efforts such as Live Through This, which looks at how rockers survive harrowing experiences like drug overdoses. Fuse also has an eight-part docu-series NOFX: Backstage Passport that follows an aging punk band on a semi-disastrous international tour that the band describes as “Titanic meets Spinal Tap.”
Fuse is also counting on a corporate shift — moving from Cablevision’s Rainbow to MSG division — to provide unique programming opportunities at Madison Square Garden, Radio City Music Hall and the Beacon Theatre. “The Garden especially is iconic for consumers and artists,” Sherman said. “We can provide special access to performances and to backstage. That’s a huge advantage.”
While GAC is also trying to shift its brand slightly, president Trahern said the network remains bullish on videos, which continue to be its programming core. She said the network ran 82% more videos than CMT last year.
Still, Trahern explains, “we want to have a much larger presence, and Scripps has given us more resources to bite off larger projects.” Among those projects have been specials focusing on stars such as Garth Brooks and Kenny Chesney; Kellie Pickler’s My USO Diary, which revolved around the singer’s visits with the troops in Iraq; and the music-based reality series Hitmen of Music Row.
LONG PLAYING MTV
Within the MTV family, smaller networks including MTV2, mtvU, VH1 Soul and VH1 Classic are also part of the move toward long-form programming.
In the case of VH1 Classic, for instance, Krim said “we need something meatier” than strictly music videos. “We want to dig a little deeper. “
That has meant old Led Zeppelin or Rolling Stones concerts, making-of show Classic Albums and repackaged 60 Minutes interviews with legendary musicians. The programming has captured the attention of the rockers themselves, according to Krim — Bruce Springsteen let the network show live performances of the first three songs from his last tour, while Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr each recently sat for half-hour interview specials.
Attracting big-name talent also gives a network like VH1 Classic more credibility with up and coming stars. “They may want to be on VH1 or MTV still but they know they won’t get the same coverage there,” Krim said. “We have more freedom here.”
That kind of creative freedom, along with the instant-reach opportunities of alternative platforms including the Internet, is also driving smaller start-ups that lack the clout and cross-promotional opportunities of the major players.
“Being independent is not easy,” said Antonn Muhammad, founder of the Real Hip-Hop Network, which is in just 21 million homes so far. “But there was a lot of misogyny and violence in hip-hop, and artists said they’d produce better content if there was an outlet for it — so we wanted to offer an intelligent alternative. We are not looking for suitors just to develop our brand and maintain an alternative viewpoint.”
Like the other, larger networks, Muhammad cited the value of long-form programming, which, in Real Hip-Hop’s case, includes break-dancing and deejay competitions and hip hop-related movies and lifestyle programs.
Rather than censor a popular video that he felt was too violent or misogynistic, the network features it on discussion program Analyze This. “We won’t exclude content but we won’t blindly take it without context,” he said. “We’ll create a dialogue.”
Stan Hitchcock, CEO of Blue Highways, believes “there is room for niche networks that brand themselves correctly and have a passionate fan base.” The network, which focuses on classic country with bluegrass, gospel and a smattering of blues, Cajun and mountain music along with related lifestyle programming, is in fewer than 1 million homes via its cable channel but reaches 6 million with its on-demand offering. The network hopes to reach 20 million linear homes within five years. Hitchcock said that the ability to sell merchandise through these different platforms is key to attracting artists and generating revenue.
LIVE FAST, DIE YOUNG
Of course, some small networks don’t survive. The Tube folded last year; and in January, International Music Feed was bought by Ovation Network. Ovation ditched IMF’s video-only approach but still shows plenty of music. “People really define themselves in terms of music,” said senior vice president of programming and production Kris Slava. “If we play people’s favorite music, it opens them up to sample everything else on the network.”
Ovation covers music from blues to rock to jazz to classical, but like the music-driven networks it is finding long-form programs the best bet, from concert series like Artists Den and a special blues workshop featuring B.B. King to a reality series about aspiring opera stars called Bathroom Divas.
While the Ovation brand typically attracts an older, more upscale audience, Current TV appeals to young viewers with its viewer-created content across all topics, including music. The network’s All Eyes On series, for instance, creates videos out of raw concert footage from audience members’ cellphones and digital cameras. “The bar to participate has gotten so much lower,” said Deanna Cohen, vice president of music programming. “Everybody can upload now. Two years ago that was not the case.”
Cohen said the network is also looking to put more cameras in the hands of the artists themselves — one of the first “viewer”-created pieces was called A Day in the Life of the Edge and was done by Bono.
Of course, even as networks large and small become increasingly ambitious in terms of their long-form programming and interactive features, Sherman points out that the game continues to change, with the growth of HD, VOD and mobile all requiring new content. “The landscape changes every few months,” he said.