It's (sometimes) easy to sympathise with the big music companies as they face an uncertain future. And it certainly isn't hard to find reasons for declining CD sales. Whatever you think about the ability of the music business to put out interesting and quality product, there are just too many means of consuming the stuff without having to buy those silvery disc things at exorbitant prices. Take the proliferation of music channels, for instance. We're increasingly moving towards a situation where there will be a channel focusing on just about any popular music genre you can think of. So why bother buying CDs when you can not only listen to your sort of music in digital quality via the TV but also actually have the stars perform the stuff on screen for you too?
This is currently media's hottest growth area. MTV now has eight channels - MTV, MTV2, MTV Hits, MTV Base, MTV Dance, VH1, VH1 Classic and The Music Factory - while Emap has seven - The Box, Smash Hits, Kiss, QTV, Magic, Kerrang! and The Hits. And Sky has the Chart Show Channel. Last week, The Hits (which launched on the Freeview digital terrestrial platform) became the first music channel available on all three digital television platforms when it signed deals with ntl and Telewest.
Music TV is everywhere. And there's even more on the way. Classic FM plans to launch soon on Sky and Sky itself is to launch more of its own music brands as part of Dawn Airey's programming expansion plans. Just how much room is there for expansion in the music TV business? And who are the long-term winners and losers likely to be? Is this basically a Viacom (the owner of the MTV brands) versus Emap face-off? And if so, what sort of shape are they in? What do they offer that's distinctive now and what have they got up their sleeves strategically?
Paul Curtis, the managing director of Viacom Brand Solutions, argues that the biggest competitive challenge isn't necessarily from Emap, Sky or indeed BBC3 - it is the music video itself. "We invented music television and we have striven to innovate the format. Our challenge is to make an impact with our own production over back-to-back videos."
He points to programming initiatives such as Celebrity Deathmatch, Jackass and, of course, The Osbournes. It is, he adds, a survival plan based on creativity. "Creativity is the cornerstone of our strategy to meet the challenges of 2003 and beyond. Next year, we are making the biggest programme investment in original programming in our history - doubling our budget and launching our flagship daily live show in the heart of London. MTV is the first-choice brand for consumers."
It reckons it has the figures to back that up. According to an IPSOS/RSL Omnibus Study of 2,000 adults in November 2002, when given a choice 71 per cent prefer MTV music brands. MTV is the fifth most popular channel of all current BSkyB subscribers, trailing only BBC1, ITV1, Sky One and Sky Sports. But some observers think Viacom belittles Emap's threat at its peril. Emap has one or two things going for it, potentially. First, its properties are available on a multi-channel basis, across radio and magazines, so it can cross-promote as well as being able to offer package deals to advertisers. Second, it has a more basic and, arguably, risk-free programming strategy. It produces very little in the way of original programming but it puts a lot of effort into making sure the videos it runs match the tastes of the target market on each of its channels.
Tim Schoonmaker, the managing director of Emap Performance, also argues that as the music TV market continues to fragment, so it becomes increasingly similar to the magazine market - and that is something in which Emap has unparalleled expertise. "In the magazine market, people launch and launch until there's no more room - and then some. This is the way things are in the digital world and it will be the same in most programming areas - it's just that we've already reached that point in the music area," he says.
But isn't he worried Viacom is committed to a classier product, come what may? After all, like Emap, Viacom has deep pockets. "I suspect it will make a couple of programmes here and there but, essentially, most of the channels will keep on doing what they do," he responds. "Our channels will typically play 15 videos an hour. Those videos will have cost, collectively, more than £1 million. That's a powerful programming budget. That's why we believe in music."
But what do advertisers think? Do they even notice the difference in programming philosophy? John Blakemore, the advertising director of Glaxo SmithKline, reveals he was amazed recently when he began browsing through the music domain of his electronic programme guide. He knew that there'd been lots launched over recent months but it hadn't quite sunk in just how many channels there were. He adds: "The most interesting thing from my point of view was the extent to which they were relying on non-traditional revenues - such as text messaging, for instance. We do use them for youth-targeted brands. Do we have an audience segment we can only reach using a channel like, say, Kerrang!? The answer would have to be no. But do the viewers of Kerrang! drink Lucozade Sport? Yes, they do."
Does he have views on the relative merits of the programming strategies pursued by the rival groups? Not really, he admits: "The content is very high quality obviously because it's subsidised by the record companies and it actually puts the production values of some commercials to shame - which is really saying something. But the viewing figures are our start point. None of our brands match in one channel as opposed to another.
Music TV adds to our mix and we're happy as long as the price is right and viewing figures good."
Nick Theakstone, the investment director of MindShare, points out that Viacom remains in a dominant position in terms of impact delivery and ad revenues. In terms of share of viewing against the 16- to 34-year-old adult demographic, Viacom hugely outscores Emap too. But isn't its sophisticated programming strategy potentially risky? We'll see, Theakstone says. "Emap does go for the cheaper end of programme delivery and will almost certainly be launching even more channels next year but you could argue that Viacom is way ahead in terms of brand extensions," he reasons.
So it's by no means an easy market to analyse. He concludes: "The cross-media thing is interesting but it's by no means as simple as some people think. Viacom is looking to develop cross-media ties while with Emap, Sky sells the airtime for them which gets in the way of their cross-platform proposition. My feeling, though, is that strategically Viacom seems to be just ahead of Emap."