INTERNATIONAL: MTV rethinks its role as planet’s rock ’n’ roll revolutionary as newer players muscle in - MTV had to scale back its launch party in Russia. Can it prosper in a digital age, Alasdair Reid asks?

Russia got its MTV on 26 September. The new channel kicked off with a Russian VJ ironically quoting Lenin (that’s Vladimir Ilyich, not John) before launching into Prodigy followed by Beavis and Butthead.

Russia got its MTV on 26 September. The new channel kicked off with

a Russian VJ ironically quoting Lenin (that’s Vladimir Ilyich, not John)

before launching into Prodigy followed by Beavis and Butthead.



This, you might think, is the true end of history - while politicians

have spent the past 50 years arguing about economics and ideologies, the

real revolution has been about the creation of planet rock ’n’ roll. And

now we have it. MTV is easily the world’s most potent TV brand,

available in 85 countries, accessible on one quarter of the world’s TV

sets. It is media’s Coca-Cola: attitude, lifestyle and evangelical

movement rolled into one.



Russia was the last major market to fall. So why was the September

launch in Moscow so low key? The answer is not solely to be found in the

chill winds blowing across the Russian economy, though that was the main

reason for a last-minute decision to scale down the Russian

celebrations. Even at dollars 500 for a 60-second spot, MTV Russia is

having trouble selling airtime.



So a lavish party planned for 4,000 guests in a hall right next to the

Kremlin was cancelled and instead there was a press conference in the

capital’s Rhythm ’n’ Blues Cafe.



It was a sharp contrast to MTV Europe’s outrageously extravagant 1987

launch party at the Roxy in Amsterdam, where the host was Elton John and

the first video (Money For Nothing by Dire Straits, naturally) was not

necessarily taken as an ironic commentary on the network’s business

plan.



Thoughts of Amsterdam reminded everyone that MTV is no longer available

in the Dutch capital. Following an acrimonious row with the cable

network owner, A2000, MTV pulled the plug in August. But Dutch youth is

unlikely to take to the streets in protest because there are three other

music TV stations available in the Netherlands: the Box, TV Noordzee,

and the strongest local soundalike, the Music Factory.



And therein lies MTV’s current problem. In most of its major markets,

and in Europe especially, it is being challenged by local rivals: the

Box in the UK as well as Holland, Viva in Germany and Poland, MCM in

France and Eastern Europe and TMC2 in Italy. Two weeks ago, MTV

announced it would expand its distribution in Central Europe, making its

service available free to air via Astra satellite. This adds 11million

homes in Germany, taking its reach to 77 million. But that is just one

step.



MTV management has recognised that it’s time for a major rethink. MTV

has built an incredibly strong brand as the premier channel for global

rock ’n’ roll. But until now, music television has been basically radio

with pictures. Most of the programming is provided by the music

industry.



Where does the brand lie? In your choice of music? In the personality of

your presenters? In the continuity material, graphics and station logos?

In incidental ’lifestyle’ programming?



Its attempts to answer those questions have led to changes at MTV’s US

operation. In September, there was a period of hiring and firing as it

’streamlined’ its overheads and looked at scaling down its non-music

(lifestyle, fashion, sport) output. But that’s nothing compared with its

efforts to revamp in Europe.



Over the past two years, it has moved from one satellite feed in English

to four regional services: UK and Ireland, the Nordic feed for

Scandinavia, the Central feed (partially in German) and the South

(partially in Italian).



These feature local presenters and, perhaps more importantly, choose

music to suit local tastes. And, as MTV’s worldwide chief executive, Tom

Freston, revealed following the Russian launch, the fragmentation is set

to continue.



He stated: ’We are currently looking at local versions in Spain, Holland

and Poland and plan to launch one of them by the end of the year.’



MTV has also been spinning off brand extensions like VH-1, a channel

aimed at an older age group (25 to 44 as opposed to MTV’s 16- to

34-year-olds), where Motown dance hits vie for space with the dinosaurs

of rock; and M2, which launched two years ago in the US and will be

rolled out across Europe in the near future. Aimed at a 12- to 24-year-

old age group, the innovation is an interactive element - situating it

between a request station and a virtual juke box.



M2 is MTV’s first response to the digital age - and digital transmission

technologies, which will facilitate the launch of scores of music

channels, is where the network’s greatest challenges lie. In this

environment, audiences might fragment into small tribes, each following

their own esoteric tastes in music.



Some say it is already too late for MTV. It isn’t cool any more. MTV was

a child of the Dire Straits and REM era and the future will be about

techno and dance cultures that a big US corporation can never hope to

follow. MTV, however, remains convinced that it is well placed to keep

riding the unpredictable current of youth culture. Speaking at the

Moscow launch, Bill Roedy, president of MTV Networks International,

dismissed all notions that we might have already seen the high water

mark of MTV.



He claimed: ’We have tremendous faith in the long run. Besides, MTV

traditionally swims against the tide.’



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