Brown crafts music channel for tastes

HONG KONG — Conquering America was the easy part. To have access to one vast, largely affluent, English-speaking market with huge cable penetration would be the stuff of MTV Asia president Frank Brown’s dreams.

In late 1994, MTV Asia’s Singapore headquarters consisted of Brown and one other staff member using rented desks. The future looked daunting at best.

“When we first launched in Asia only India, Taiwan and mainland China had significant cable penetration,” Brown says.

Even tougher, Brown quickly realized that success in Asia was going to require much more than expecting the region to shimmy to the groove of the network’s U.S. feed.

U.S. artists not a huge hit

In most Asian markets, local artists rack up about 80% of record sales. Madonna and Britney Spears have international recognition but Brown knew MTV had to dig deeper to find the rhythm of each distinct market.

His strategy seems to be working. Nowadays, MTV Asia reaches 134 million households in the region. In the early days, Brown struck licensing deals for piecemeal chunks of MTV programming with channels around the territory.

The network’s Asian audience is split among five 24-hour MTV-owned and -operated services, encompassing Southeast Asia, China, India, South Korea and the Philippines. Each market has its unique preferences.

MTV’s Mandarin channel, which reaches Taiwan and mainland China, features 40% international music, while the network’s Indian operation fills 70% of airtime with local Hindi-flavored beats. The past few months have been expansionary ones for MTV, which launched its Philippines service last January, and MTV Korea last July.

Not wanting to offend

The network that made its name with brash boundary pushing has had to tread a more careful line in Asia — without abandoning its edgy core values completely. Brown has found he has needed to be sensitive to local cultures, but that MTV’s audience also has a remarkable ability to have things both ways.

“We think of our consumers as dual-passport holders: They wear sneakers and baseball caps but are equally comfortable in traditional dress with their families,” Brown says. “There’s a common bond among young people today that there has never been for any past generation, and MTV provides them with a wonderful window to the rest of the world.”

Just the beginning

Brown exuberantly believes that he’s really only just getting started. The cable and satellite industry as a whole is bullish on potential expansion in India and China in particular, and as cable infrastructure quickly evolves, it should become easier to make money from content.

But Brown’s multicultural juggling act won’t end soon. Despite the splintered nature of his target market, he still sees MTV as a unifying force.

“The music and cultures are so diverse but young people still have something in common,” Brown says.

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