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MTV Networks listens up

For MTV Networks, offering its digital services is all about providing its viewers with unique and diverse programming and helping the network better connect to the audience.

"From the inception of our very first service, it has been about our connection to our audience," says Susan Keith, vice president of affiliate marketing and broadband for MTV Networks. "With any business decision we make, we ask ourselves: Will this enhance the viewer experience? We do tons and tons of research and focus groups."

In fact, its children's channel, Nickelodeon GAS (Games and Sports for Kids), launched in March 1999, is the product of its focus groups. "We knew there was more that we could be providing for kids and parents," says Keith. "It captures the fun and spirit of play and sport."

The network sees this as a way to better serve not only its viewers but also MSOs and DBS providers. "We knew that digital was the new platform for our distributors," says Keith. "We had an opportunity to provide them with more quality programming."

MTV Networks offers an array of services under its digital umbrella. MTV launched its first digital service, MTV2, in 1996, 15 years after it launched MTV. With more than 30 million subscribers, MTV2 serves as the flagship for the network's digital music services.

Following the success of MTV2, the network launched MTV "S," featuring Spanish-language music videos; MTV "X," appealing to the underserved "rocker" market and featuring videos from the '80s and '90s; VH1 Classic; and VH1 Soul.

In February 1999, MTV Networks launched Noggin, the kids "thinking channel" from Nickelodeon and the Children's Television Workshop for children ages 2 to 12. Noggin, which is also available for analog distribution, is currently distributed in 20 million households.

Nick Too is an extension of Nickelodeon that allows viewers to watch programs at different times throughout the day.

Regarding advertising: Because the digital networks are still in their infancy, those plans have yet to be set. And some of the smaller and more specialized channels are designed to have no advertising. Noggin, for example, will most likely use a sponsorship model. But larger channels, such as MTV2, are exploring a national advertising model.

The digital platform also allows MTV Networks to expand their interactive offerings, as digital set-tops become part of home entertainment systems. MTV already provides interactive services across its analog networks. "Our digital services have a wonderful opportunity to be multimedia," says Keith. "We've been warming up our audiences to interactivity." And audiences warmed up for interactive service could help cable operators find a new way to keep viewers from moving to DBS.

For example, one of MTV's most popular shows, Total Request Live, lets viewers log on to its Web site to request music videos they want to see. Nearly half the show's approximately 823,000 "savvy" viewers participate interactively, says Keith. She's also looking forward to the future of true two-way interactive-digital television that is possible with digital cable, but she admits the industry has a way to go.

"There are technological hurdles in order for that to be available to a wide array of audiences, and the number of people who have two-way interactive digital set-top boxes is very small," she says. "We know that our consumer wants to interact ... When the technology really becomes available, it's going to be such an easy transition."