The often smooth-and-cozy relationship between the recording industry and cable networks has hit a sour note.
After four years of using music-oriented programming to reach the "tween" audience, Disney Channel has elected to drop music-video and concert performances from its schedule — eliminating valuable and free on-air promotion for young artists.
Meanwhile, several record labels have sued MTVI Group, MTV: Music Television's Internet arm, over its use of copyrighted music in interactive and streaming-audio services.
While competitors Nickelodeon and Fox Family Channel will keep music videos and concerts on their schedules, Disney Channel will nix such programming in favor of cameo appearances by popular artists in its original specials and series, general manger and executive vice president of programming and production Rich Ross said.
Since June 1, the network has removed about 20 minutes worth of music-video and concert programming per day from its programming lineup. Since 1997 — when it aired a concert by country-music star LeAnn Rimes — the network has used music programming from popular teen-targeted acts such as Aaron Carter and Britney Spears to attract 9-to-14 year-old "tween" viewers.
However, Nickelodeon and Fox Family have since increased their music offerings to an extent that music is no longer a unique facet of the Disney Channel lineup, said Ross.
"We were the first to offer video programming, but sometimes you have to know when to leave the party," he said.
Disney Channel was also dismayed by its inability to reap any tangible benefit from the free promotion it provides labels through music videos. The network did not receive a split from CD sales and almost none of the videos aired were exclusive to the network.
Instead of running music videos, Ross said Disney is working with labels on cameo appearances for some artists in the network's various series and movies. Ross cited appearances by rock group BBMak (in an episode of Evens Stevens), Aaron Carter (in Lizzie McGuire) and Destiny's Child lead singer Beyoncé Knowles (The Famous Jett Jackson) as examples of artists who've appeared on popular Disney shows.
By putting the artists in its shows, Ross said, Disney Channel is able to continue to provide record labels with exposure for their talent while maintaining creative control over its music programming.
Ross said the network has even cut music videos around an artist's song featuring highlights from the appearance.
"Music has been good for us, so we looked for a more even relationship with the artists," he said.
This tack also enables Disney to control the images within music videos, which Ross said had become a problem for the network. Ross said parents had voiced concerns that several recent videos by pop star Spears were inappropriate, for example.
"We were getting into a dangerous area, particularly with the parents, to a point where we had to take a stand," he said.
But its competitors will not take a similar stand. Nickelodeon executives said they have no plans to alter the network's music programming in light of Disney's decision.
"Music is important to kids lives and it allows us to stay knowledgeable with their lives," Nickelodeon executive vice president of production Kevin Kay said.
The network runs 30-second clips of preselected videos each day during an interactive segment of its afternoon block, as well as a Sunday-night concert series.
Nick has also featured artists within original programs such as All That, while its Tania
series has a music-oriented theme.
Given Disney's decision, Kay hopes tweens who seek out music programming will view Nickelodeon as an alternative.
"We definitely hope kids will come to us for music," Kay said.
Fox Family also believes its music programming, highlighted by a video countdown show and quarterly music concerts, drives viewers to the network, executive vice president of programming and development Joel Andryc said. Both Fox Family and the record labels benefit from the relationship, he added.
"I think music is real important and appealing to the 9-to-14 and 12-to-17-year-old viewers," he said. "It's a win-win for all parties: We get a return on it, in terms of viewership, and the labels receive promotional opportunities for their artists."
At least one operator may look to turn Disney's decision into an opportunity to reach a segmented audience. Looking to boost the appeal of its video-on-demand services, Cox Communications Inc. vice president of new business development Debby Mullin said at the recent National Show that she would like to work with record companies to explore opportunities to put music video programming on its video-on-demand platform in San Diego.
Ross conceded that Disney Channel's decision was negatively received by many record-label executives.
"Losing an outlet is very upsetting for them; it's free marketing for the artists," he said. "But it's abundantly clear that we put a lot of muscle in breaking acts, which helped them sell records, yet we didn't receive any part of the revenue from those sales."
But one record-industry executive, who wished to remain anonymous, said there are other outlets to pick up the slack. "I don't see it as a major problem for us," said the executive.
One problem that does concern record executives is online audio streaming. Several record companies filed suit June 8 in U.S. District Court of Southern New York against MTVI Group and several other online music purveyors, claiming the services infringe on music copyrights when songs are played as part of interactive online playlists.
In a statement, MTVI said its service complies fully with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 and called the action "unnecessary."
Representatives from the RIAA did not return phone calls.
The suit came in response to litigation that several online music services had filed against the music industry in California several weeks earlier. MTVI said that it believes the California action "will resolve the issue adequately."
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