A New Way of Dancing

VH1 viewers could not miss the network's April Save the Music benefit concert, headlined by pop princess Mariah Carey, who was promoting her new CD, The Emancipation of Mimi. The music network publicized the heck out of the concert: On-air countdown bugs appeared during all network programs on the week of the show; info tickers ran on any programming featuring the concert's performers; Savethe Music's own section of the VH1 Web site featured downloadable mobile ringtones, computer wallpaper and online artist trading cards; and a half-hour red-carpet pre-show counted down the minutes until the concert's premiere.

VH1's flexing of its marketing muscle for the special represents part of an evolution in the way it and other mainstream music networks air music programming: more focus on specials that get ratings, less on music videos that don't.

“We use every tool we have on the channel to get acts out there,” says Rick Krim, VH1's executive VP, music and talent relations. “Music videos are important as they've ever been, but we want to maintain a balance.” He says the number of music-video hours has been “pretty consistent” during his nearly five years at the Viacom-owned network. (VH1 can't exactly quantify that, however.)

But the music programming that supplements those hours has changed—and Krim isn't talking about the network's foray into “celebreality” originals.

Like its sister network MTV, VH1 increasingly covers artists by featuring them on specials like the soon-to-return Storytellers; using them as commentators on pop-culture programming like the I Love the '80s series; squeezing in their videos during show credits; and creating stand-alone prime time promotions and news packages branded with various franchise blocks that viewers recognize.

“The whole music business is fracturing and fragmenting and iPoding into something for which there are so many venues that it's not really music. It's kind of video entertainment now,” says TV historian Tim Brooks, head of research at Lifetime. And although the audience with an appetite for music videos is enthusiastic, it is also limited. “Sitting in front of the TV set and watching music videos is like something your dorky older brother would do,” Brooks says.

Last week, mobile-content aggregator SmartVideo announced it will launch the first free, ad-supported music-video network for cellphones in June. Unlike its main mobile television service, which charges $12.95 a month for content from MSNBC, Weather Channel and others, SmartVideo's Digital Music Video Network will let cell users with Web access and a media player stream free music from its library of more than 40,000 videos.

The way young people consume music has changed so much that videos are no longer a novelty, and supporting a music-based network is more difficult today than it was 20 years ago, Brooks says. Videos are perceived as passé by the young demo that music networks target, and other music programming, such as VH1's specials, gets higher absolute ratings.

Pushing Niche Music Networks

And how about those “celebreality” shows (see page 52)? They do even better. The Surreal Life, which found a home for its third season on VH1 after The WB cancelled it, boosted the music network's viewership in the time slot to 1.4 million—a 138% jump from the prior year. Now the network is set to follow up with a fifth installment this summer, along with reality shows from Jerry Hall (Kept), Hulk Hogan (Hogan Knows Best) and Gene Simmons (Rock School), in addition to the second round of Celebrity Fit Club.

MTV had two of the top five new cable originals last year with reality series Til Death Do Us Part and TheAshlee Simpson Show, averaging 1.92 million and 1.83 million viewers, respectively. In 2004, its Video Music Awards show was the third-highest-rated ad-supported cable program, with 10.3 million total viewers.

MTV has been savvy with its handful of digital networks as well, using them as outlets for the true-blue fans of various music genres, while the mothership transitions to lifestyle shows. The channels include MTV2, which re-branded with an edgier young-male-skewing look in February; pop-focused MTV Hits (17.3 million subscribers); hip-hop/R&B network MTV Jams (12.5 million); and contemporary Latin MTV Español (16.1 million).

VH1 has its own digital nets: VH1 Classic, in 40 million homes, is branching out from mainly videos to long-form concerts, and VH1 Soul—an urban-music channel in 13 million homes—will be a major focus this year. Fellow Viacom-owned network BET heavily rotates music videos into its programming mix, too.

FUSE More “Music-centric”

Then there is Fuse, the Cablevision-owned network launched as a reincarnation of the Muchmusic cable network in May 2003, billing itself as an antidote to Viacom's music monopoly—and the cure for the “gaping hole” left by the dearth of music videos in the TV landscape.

There is also The Tube, the new multicast effort (see page 24). Fuse is now under Rob Weiss, the head of entertainment, who joined the network after heading East Coast development at VH1. And Fuse has branched out. From April 2004 to this past January, when his title was head of programming, Weiss added five shows. After he became the entertainment chief, he added nine more shows, and recently added another two. They include Celebrity Tastemaker, which features stars gabbing about their music passions; rock-and-roll advice show Slave to the Metal; and this summer's Ultimate Gig: The Fuse VJ Search.

Weiss insists that the programming is more music-centric than the competition's and that, with half its schedule devoted to videos, Fuse has more music-video hours than any of the other music networks.

“It's been my driving mission to figure out how to make sure Fuse maintains a music focus and celebrates videos while still remaining a viable channel,” Weiss says. “Fuse will never have more non-video shows than video shows. That's what makes us distinctive.”

Not necessarily so, says new MTV President Christina Norman. “Music and music videos are at the core of everything we do,” she says. “They impact the way our shows are conceived, and the way television and advertising is experienced by our audience.”

Norman, who pulled VH1 out of a ratings slump in 2002 with a host of pop-culture-nostalgia clip shows, says that, across the MTV channels, there are more music videos on the air today than ever before. The network's focus, however, is broader; it is forging deep fan connections with services like the new broadband site MTV Overdrive, aimed at those who surf the Web as much as they tune into TV.

“It's gotta be more than about just playing the videos,” Norman says. “Videos are great, and it's one way in, but what MTV's done so well is to expand that experience. The most exciting thing about being back at a brand like MTV is all the ways to use every single platform to use music to reach into audiences' lives.”

The way to keep fans tuning in to videos, says Weiss, is to “context” them with clever packaging or lead-ins from the network's growing fleet of recognizable VJs.

MTV Networks Still Rule

Fuse recently added Metal Asylum, featuring heavy-metal videos introduced by VJ Juliya, and Hip-hop Confidential, a video-flow show in which VJ Marianela dishes dirt on hip-hop stars' personal lives in between videos. These join Steven's Untitled Rock Show, in which VJ Steven Smith showcases new indie and punk music, and cornerstone series Daily Download, featuring live performances with free downloadable songs.

Like MTV Networks, Fuse also pushes interactivity, allowing viewers to download free music, text-message song dedications and solve puzzles on the Web.

Still, the network has yet to really gain traction against the juggernaut that is MTV; Fuse is available in 38 million homes compared with MTV's 88.5 million, MTV2's more than 57.5 million and VH1's 87 million.

If Fuse can build to at least 60 million subscribers, Brooks says, it will likely try to maximize revenue with broad-appealing lifestyle programming, rather than relying on a music mix.

But music fans thirsting for videos should not fear. Assuming distribution can be eked out with space-strapped cable operators, starting a music-video network is an inexpensive endeavor: Programming costs are low because record companies supply videos cheaply, writing them off as a promotional cost.

So if Fuse also evolves to encompass broader-skewing originals and ease off the videos, someone will pick up the slack. New market entrant Gospel Music Channel, which launched in October, is programming to the genre and hopes to be in 4.5 million homes by year's end.

“As they move away from videos, the smaller fish come up behind them to get a foothold doing what they used to do,” says Brooks. “It's the trickle-down effect of cable programming. There's always someone out there who wants to fill the niche.”