HOLLYWOOD — Like most 15-1/2-year-olds in America, MTV doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up. The network finds itself at a crossroads, at least in part because the rock/pop music industry itself seems to be in a period of re-examination. MTV is in the process of redefining itself, tweaking its musical direction and working to place its primary emphasis back on the videos that made it an international phenomenon in the first place.
The latest wrinkle in MTV’s ongoing creative revamp kicked in Monday, when it added between 10 and 20 more hours of musicvideos and music-oriented programs per week while relegating most of its non-music shows to a 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. nightly block it calls “The 10 Spot.”
MTV prexy Judy McGrath, who has been with the channel since its inception in 1981, says, “It was never our in-tention to move away from music. We were pushed to do it in the mid-’80s to control our own destiny a bit. We just couldn’t rely on a steady flow of product from the record companies. It’s difficult to build a schedule when you don’t know what records and videos are coming.”
That was why, in the 1990s, MTV started scheduling shows such as “The Real World” and “Road Rules,” “Beavis and Butt-head” and “Singled Out” — not to mention countless flops — discovering such superstar commodities as “Beavis” creator Mike Judge and male fantasy figure Jenny McCarthy along the way. When non-music shows had ratings significantly higher than musicvid blocks, MTV’s brain trust was thrust into a dilemma. Did it risk alienat-ing the core demographic of music fans age 12-24, upon whose shoulders it had built a billion-dollar brand? Or did it run for the newfound audience winners instead?
For the most part, MTV channeled its energies away from musicvid programming while erecting franchise half-hours. When it did do music, styles such as rap and alternative rock were dominating sales and attracting an audi-ence significantly different from the music fans who initially had tuned in. The economic demographic changed as well. Record labels too, were left feeling slighted as MTV began playing fewer and fewer videos, stripping artists of their prime TV marketing venue.
Even today, MTV is not exactly dumping its non-music program mandate, as McGrath readily acknowledges. It recently premiered the “Beavis and Butt-head” animated spinoff “Daria,” and has in the past few months rolled out the pop-culture quiz show “Idiot Savants,” “The Rodman World Tour” with basketballer Dennis Rodman, and the radio-on-TV strip “Loveline.”
Coming soon are the eccentric, public-access inspired talk strip “Oddville” hosted by Frank Hope; the standup comedy showcase “Apartment 2F”; and MTV’s first sitcom, “Austin Stories.” All this, plus a handful of new ani-mated series in development, and new “B&B” episodes in the works.
Meanwhile, MTV refuses to cop to an identity crisis. “We’re not abandoning the (non-music) programming block, but we are putting the focus back on music in a big way,” McGrath says. “Our goal during the next quarter is to make a lot more room for music.
“With the music industry lacking a clear direction right now, we have an opportunity to try out a few new direc-tions of our own.” Mind you, McGrath swears that even when it seemed that MTV was phasing out the musicvids, the typical mix was still 80% music, 20% other. So why didn’t it seem that way?
“Things had started to tilt a bit away from the music,” McGrath allows. “We felt at the end of last year that we had to stop rerunning ourselves like crazy with stuff like the first season of ‘Real World’ and ‘Ren & Stimpy.’ We needed more innovative and fresh and less stale and repeat.”
It was while watching the MTV musicvid spinoff M2 (launched Aug. 1) that gave McGrath and her cohorts “a real creative jolt” — ironic, because M2 has thus far been a distribution bust, with virtually all of its 6.4 million sub-scriber commitments coming from satellite providers.
While M2 has been glaringly light on cable subs, it has proved heavy in breeding questions about MTV’s real commitment to programming musicvideos. Though McGrath and other MTV execs deny it, the charge from day one was that M2 would become the vid clearinghouse that MTV had ceased to be and thus placate an agitated mu-sic industry.
Problem is, nobody’s there to see M2. MTV’s headquarters in New York has been forced to pipe in M2 via closed circuit. And at the recent National Cable Television Assn. confab in New Orleans, M2 set up a groupie bar in the MTV Networks booth to lure operators to bite. Few apparently did.
McGrath describes M2 as having a far more “freeform spirit” than MTV in terms of its playlist and personalities, which she notes can feature “Van Morrison sitting next to Beck, the Beatles, George Clinton and Johnny Cash.” But she stresses that M2 embodies “the kind of sensibility we want to borrow for MTV and belongs on MTV.”
The new MTV musical direction (initiated during the latter part of ’96) finds the network steering away from the brooding grunge-dominated playlist of recent years to one accentuating a variety of pop and dance stylists like Cake, Spice Girls and Oasis. Any way you spin it, MTV is hardly falling on hard times.
Media analyst Paul Kagan Associates estimates that MTV took in $289.3 million in revenues in 1996 and projects $332.8 million for 1997. Kagan also prices the Viacom subsidiary at $3 billion, based in large part on the power of its brand.
And MTV recently showed it has film industry legs, with “Beavis and Butt-head Do America” grossing more than $60 million domestically. A sequel is in development from creator Judge, as is a live-action version of MTV’s al-ternative animation series “Aeon Flux.”
There also is little to indicate poverty about the plush new digs in Santa Monica, where MTV occupied as of Mon-day. It’s five stories and about 100,000 square feet.
“We remain very strong and healthy,” McGrath says. “But this network has always been about change and shaking up the status quo. It’s just time for us to do it again.”