Before MTV: Music Television sprang onto the scene in 1980, music on television was generally limited to syndicated fare like American Bandstand
and Soul Train, as well as sporadic concert specials sprinkled on broadcast television.
MTV's success, though, has led to the creation and explosion of the music video as both an art and commerce form, with several networks today offering the genre — in one guise or another — as a staple of their programming lineups.
But as the video revolution enters its third decade, some networks are re-examining the role music videos play in attracting viewers. While many services continue to embrace the video business, others like Disney Channel and even progenitor MTV are finding other ways of providing music from popular artists to their audiences, either through long-form music programming or within other original programming vehicles.
Still others are using music videos as a gateway toward convergence and interactivity through programming alliances with sister online services.
Too Much Music?
Twenty years after MTV emerged as the first channel to primarily offer music video programming, there are no less than 15 analog and digital channels today that schedule a significant amount of music video programming. The proliferation of music video programming — along with digital and analog music services — have some cable operators concerned about saturation.
"There's a lot of duplication of music videos on a number of channels," said one MSO executive who wished to remain anonymous.
But Insight Communications Co. senior vice president of marketing and programming Pam Euler Halling believes that there is still room for several music services — provided that they serve a particular niche.
"I think if any new network is looking for analog carriage, that market is pretty much filled," she said. "But there can be room for more niche services in a digital environment."
MuchMusic acting general manager Nora Ryan said that music is no different from other programming categories that have multiple competitors. "Every single category has multiple channels with multiple companies and they're all thriving," Ryan said. "The more competitors you have, the better off the consumer is because they have more choice."
To further illustrate the benefit of diversity within the music industry, MTV chairman and CEO Tom Freston said that music has continued to thrive on radio, despite a plethora of stations. "There're 70 radio stations in New York and 80 radio stations in LA; I don't know if there's ever too much music," he said. "What it really depends on is whether there's enough audience to economically support X number of services in any particular category. The marketplace certainly takes care of that one way or another."
Dancing Away From Videos
Even if the music landscape can still be fecund, especially in the digital landscape, some networks have decided to pull away from playing music videos all the time. Ironically, it has been music video pioneer MTV that has made the most dramatic move away from what was once the core of its programming lineup. MTV has recently veered toward more long-form programs such as Real World, and controversial shows Jackass
and Spyder Games.
But Freston said the network's programming gambits haven't hurt the service, but instead helped it maintain its high viewership among the 12-34 audience. "Creatively, the channel is better than it's ever been," Freston said.
To feed the appetite of music video lovers, however, MTV sister digital service MTV2 now offers the lion's share of music video product.
For its part, Disney Channel has gone one step further. Wanting to gain more creative and content control over its music offerings, Disney Channel last month pulled all of its music video programming from the channel, totally eliminating such programming from its "tween" 9-12-targeted blocks.
Nevertheless, Disney Channel general manger and executive vice president of programming and production Rich Ross contends that the network will remain in the music game. Disney Channel announced at the recent Television Critics Association press tour that it had signed popular recording artist Destiny's Child to record theme songs for its new animated series The Proud Family.
The network will cull highlights from the recording session to create a music video to not only provide exposure for the group on the network, but also to promote the show.
This new push, Ross said, will allow the service to continue to offer its audience music programming, while maintaining the network's editorial standards. Indeed, Disney Channel had deemed that some of today's videos were a bit too provocative from sexual and language perspectives for its tween audience standards.
But pre-teens looking for music video product can still find it in abundance on networks such as Nickelodeon and Fox Family Channel.
Looking to tie in with younger generation of viewers who have grown up in the cyber world and are quite comfortable toggling between the TV and PC screens, networks that have maintained a major music video presence are seeking to forge interactive relationships by giving viewers more control of their options.
MuchMusic USA, for example, has created several shows within its afternoon and primetime block that allows viewers to have a greater say in what goes on air. Working in partnership with a multimillion dollar Web site, www.mmusa.tv, Ryan said programming such as Tastemaker
and Random Intelligence
allow viewers to not only choose the videos they want to see, but to also appear on-air as VJs.
"No other network comes close to what MuchMusic USA provides a national audience in innovative music programming and cross-platform technology," Ryan said.
VH1 is also allowing viewers to use the Internet to influence on-air music programming choices. In addition to its annual My VH1 Music Awards, in which viewers actually chose the categories as well as the winners, the network has scheduled a Monday interactive block in which viewers can vote to see their favorite shows from such series as Behind The Music.
Black Entertainment Television has even created a show based on its Web site. BET.com Countdown
enables viewers to program the show's content. "A lot of people on the Internet are within the younger age demos, and their major source of entertainment is music," BET vice president of programming and talent Stephen Hill said. "What we're trying to do within our shows is direct our viewers who want to know more about the artists to go to the Web site and find out more information. And those who are primarily on the Web site can vote on their favorites and then watch it on BET."
Even Nickelodeon is using the Internet to push its music video programming. The network's daily Nick Video Picks
gives children a chance to vote daily online between three abbreviated clips. A full-length version of the winning video plays each evening during its Slime Time Live
show. Nick executives said close to 1 million kids vote per week on Nick.com.
MTV.com is hoping to take the interaction between the cable and the Internet a step further by allowing viewers to buy and eventually download music they see on the network. Freston said the network is pushing the concept of MTV 360 — a cross-platform union of its MTV, MTV2 and MTV.com brands.
"We will be coordinating the programming on all three of those services — the purpose being to allow the users to have sort of a most satisfying music experience they can get anywhere on-line or on TV," he said.
As part of that experience, Freston said the company is preparing a service based on the popular music downloading service Napster that will allow viewers to download music from the MTV.com site. He added the company has reached agreements with all the major record studios that allow people to download music on a legal basis.
"We are very excited about the possibilities that exist for MTV and the music world online, and we're going to have, we believe, the state-of-the-art legal music site," Freston said. "Now it isn't all songs, and you have to pay for them, but it's certainly a step in that direction."
(At press time, MTVI Group and several other online music purveyors were still involved in litigation, stemming from a lawsuit filed last month by several record companies in U.S. District Court of Southern New York over what the plaintiffs deemed to be copyright infringements when songs were used as part of interactive playlists.)
Live Concert programming
While videos comprise the bulk of music programming on cable, A&E Network, Trio, Country Music Television and Home Box Office offer live music concerts on a limited basis.
HBO, for example, offers two to three marquee concerts a year, featuring some of the biggest names in music: This year alone, the network has or will showcase such names as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Britney Spears.
HBO senior vice president of original programming Nancy Gellar said the concerts fit well within the network's overall mantra of offering big events to subscribers. "It's much like a branding of the service when we can offer music events that no one else does," Gellar said. "We take a major artist or two a year and present it like no one else can."