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
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
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
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
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.’