Fuse ignites MTV fight

Net aims to be subversive, renegade to take on competish

MTV is fighting back.

The web’s had to endure swipes from musicvid channel Fuse, which says MTV has lost its commitment to musicvideos.

One tactic saw Fuse take out a giant billboard outside of the MTV studio in Times Square featuring former hungry kid spokeswoman Sally Struthers urging passersby to “Please … Help Save the Music Videos.”

Though the company insists it’s not about retaliation, MTV2, the digital cable sister of MTV, will launch its first-ever national marketing campaign this summer.

“We’ve been waiting for our time to go out with a full-on branding campaign, and this summer is the time,” said MTV2 general manager David Cohn.

‘The channel must deliver’

“Our issue is that we wanted the channel to be what it could be before we made a considerable investment in a significant consumer campaign. Good campaigns do a lot of good, but the channel must deliver.”

Cohn would not disclose details about the blitz but said it would not target Fuse.

MTV2, which airs musicvideos around the clock, was launched in 1996, when MTV was shifting its emphasis to reality shows like “The Real World” and other non-music video programming.

It has 48 million subscribers compared with MTV’s 85 million.

The much smaller Fuse, broadcast in 31 million homes, is the renamed Muchmusic USA, a network of Rainbow Media.

Muchmusic was the first net to give MTV, which owns the older-skewed musicvid net VH1, any competish when it debuted in 2002. It prides itself on its commitment to “viewer-driven” programming determined by viewers’ online votes.

Cut Chum ties, relaunched

Last month the net cut its ties to Canadian broadcaster Chum and relaunched as Fuse in an attempt to rebrand its so-so name.

Besides taking potshots at competitors, though, rebranding has its challenges.

“It usually depends on your target audience, and the younger market is a little bit more fickle,” said Tom DeCabia, exec VP at PHD-USA. “But at the same time it’s like opening a restaurant. You can advertise and say, ‘Come try our food,’ but the food had better be good or they’re not coming back.”

Fuse’s rebirth has been neither subtle nor nice.

Besides the billboard, Fuse ordered 2 million coffee cups posing the question “Where’s the M emptee-vee?” on the side. That prompted MTV chief exec Mark Rosenthal to call Rainbow Media chief Josh Sapan and complain that the cups were a “personal affront.”

Other components of the Gotham-based campaign include online viral marketing, concert sponsorships, street teams and bus signs.

‘We need to be subversive’

“We need to be somewhat subversive and a little bit renegade,” admitted Fuse prexy Marc Juris. For its part, MTV is open about having turned its focus from musicvideos.

“Fighting a battle against MTV is kind of like fighting the Cold War. ‘Where’s the music on MTV?’ is an old story that played out in the early ’90s,” said Cohn. “The problem with their strategy is that they can’t really acknowledge MTV2. What they’re doing is chucking grenades at the big dog when that’s not the relevant story.”

The question industryites have for Fuse is what lies behind the smart-aleck pose.

More American artists

Without Canadian ownership, Fuse will air more American artists than Muchmusic did, but otherwise it has not articulated a major shift in format.

Another issue is the strength of the MTV brand.

“MTV has had this market cornered for such a long time,” DeCabia said. “There’s always room for a new contender, but at the same time they’re in an uphill battle.”

Yet some are pleased to see MTV given a run for its money.

“I welcome any new channel. The more the merrier as far as I’m concerned,” said Amani Duncan, VP of vid promotion at Virgin Records. “I love Fuse’s tongue-in-cheek approach to musicvideos.”

As for the billboard, it will come down in July, only to be replaced by another one. Whether Struthers will be on it, Juris wouldn’t say. “We like the element of surprise,” he said.