Go Where The Audience Is

MTV and rivals migrate to the Internet and keep a TV base

When Jessica Simpson recently appeared on MTV’s Total Request Live to premiere her latest video, her mere presence generated a wave of excitement. But at the same time the live show was on MTV, the network simultaneously delivered a different version on its broadband site, MTV Overdrive.

The simulcast offered a peek at the whir of backstage activity. At one point, a VJ engaged the video’s popular director, Brett Ratner, in a phone conversation in which he dropped some revealing tidbits and anecdotes about Simpson.

If the dual-screen telecasts weren’t enough for Simpson’s young-teen fans, MTV offered on- demand access on Overdrive to Simpson’s all-time favorite videos and her complete collection. For the hour, it was truly Simpson 360.

“It becomes this very deep and immersive experience that really super-serves the audience,” says Dave Sirulnick, executive VP of multiplatform production at MTV. “The idea is to give the viewer as much control and access to all things about the particular guest or show.”

It’s also a prime example of how MTV is following (or leading) its audience to alternative sources—mainly the Internet—to find music. It seems to be working. The network’s summer experiment with TRL on Overdrive will lead to a weekly program this fall on Overdrive.

With new broadband offerings, networks are determined not to let online giants Yahoo!, AOL and MSN and newer challengers YouTube and MySpace encroach on their turf.

“What’s going to drive the most excitement on the Web is the content you’re not going to see elsewhere,” says Jeff Minsky, director of emerging media platforms at OMD Digital, the online-strategy unit of the ad-buying giant. “It’s the peek behind the curtains. If I’m a fan of a particular show or artist, I want as much content as I can possibly get. On television, I was limited to what they were pushing out to me.”

Networks may or may not have time to ward off Internet-only competitors. June 2006 figures from Nielsen/NetRatings reveal that the Yahoo! and MSN music sites had precipitous drops in unique users from a year ago, while AOL Music experienced a slight uptick. Meanwhile, My­Space (up 281%) and YouTube (from nowhere to 20 million unique users in June) are riding the buzz factor to huge traffic jumps. An encouraging sign: Trailblazer MTV Overdrive saw a 295% jump over a year ago, but traffic figures still pale beside the Internet-only sites.

One thing is clear: Unlike in the 1980s, when music videos were largely concentrated on MTV and viewers had to watch loops to wait for their favorites, videos are now widely available for on-demand consumption on multiple sites, plus video-on-demand outlets, such as Music Choice. Networks need to find other ways to differentiate themselves in the broadband space.

Still, it’s difficult to believe that such a potent programming source as music videos would become hard to find.

Some TV executives feel the same way. Longtime music-television executive Les Garland took advantage of digital-multi­casting technology to launch all-video channel The Tube last year. It’s now getting some traction and says it will be in 71 of the top 100 markets, reaching 74% of the population, by the end of the summer.

Unlike MTV, The Tube is mainly all video—and proud of it.

“I’m tired of reading that music on television won’t work,” Garland says. “Those who make such statements surely meant to say, 'The wrong music won’t work on television.’”

There’s probably truth in that. “Wherever the audience is, advertisers will follow,” says Geoff Robison, senior VP of national broadcast for Palisades Media Group. But over the years, at least for music videos, that audience has gone to the Internet.

That leaves space for Fuse, the cable music network that’s part of Rainbow Media, claims 45 million subscribers and boasts some frankly edgy programming.

It will take a page from MTV’s book this fall and offer an online simulcast of the pre-show for its music/horror-themed “Chainsaw Awards.” The network will stream live backstage footage with different content and camera angles from the on-air broadcast.

Programs like that make Catherine Mullen, Fuse executive VP/general manager, firmly state, “We’re a multiplatform brand.”

But MTV is the brand to beat, and it is unfailingly optimistic. Viacom President/CEO Tom Freston predicts MTV Networks will bring in $500 million in digital ad revenue by 2009.