Les Garland's Latest Video Invention

He discusses The Tube, his multicasting music experiment
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Les Garland lives and breathes music television. After years as one of the nation's top rock-radio programmers, he became an executive at Atlantic Records, a gig he left to join his friend Bob Pittman in co-founding MTV and then VH1. In the 1990s, Garland helped launch The Box, a music-video channel that has since been swallowed by MTV2.

Now Garland is back, this time with The Tube, a music-video network that is squeezing itself onto the extra space in the digital spectrum typically used just for secondary high-def options. The Tube launches in June on 30 Raycom-owned stations; the largest market is Cleveland. Garland talked with Stuart Miller about the music-on-TV business.

What brings you back to television again?

I was flipping around, and I said to a friend, “Is it me, or are you noticing a shortage of music on television?” The percentage of the 168 hours in a week where networks like MTV and VH1 were really playing music was minimal. I'm not slamming my alma mater, because they're terrific at what they do, but there wasn't much in terms of pure music videos.

How did you develop the concept for The Tube?

Actually, my first thought was to go after 12- to 25- year-olds, because I thought there was maybe a slot there. But I saw it as a traditional cable channel, and the real obstacle, which got bigger and bigger, was distribution.

That's the ultimate cable conundrum. How did you surmount it?

A long-time friend recommended that I meet Mike Ruggiero [CEO of ATV Broadcast Consulting]. He unveils this thing called multicasting, and he's going on about it, and it's all technical, and finally I say, “What are you talking about?” I made him start all over again, and I said, “This time, draw me some pictures.” Once I got it, I said, “I think you're sitting on the biggest secret in show business.”

But The Tube is not going to be for teens.

Well, we went on a fishing expedition with distributors, and their first question was about content. The videos aimed at that demographic are often not compatible with where we'd be slotted in. It freaks people out. Now, I remember from my radio days getting in trouble for playing Jimi Hendrix's long version of “The Star Spangled Banner.” I'm done pushing that envelope. This wasn't so appealing to me, so I went back to the drawing board.

What did you find there?

Well, The Fuse is really taking on MTV and the 12-25 demo. And VH1 Classic shows a lot of music, but it's only classics, and there's a question of its relevance to today. People over 35 are buying music, but they have fewer options. There are a lot of factors like the consolidation of radio, which has made it more difficult for companies to break new acts in.

Well, I listen to Coldplay, and my kids listen to The Beatles and The Who, and their teenage babysitter likes Jimi Hendrix.

Exactly. So I thought about a foundation of classic rock but not just old videos. We're playing new music by superstars like U2 and Bruce Springsteen, and we're also playing bands like Coldplay. I'm a passionate music guy, and this is an extension of me and my personality.

Will you expand the programming later on?

No. It's pure. There are going to be no long-form reality shows, no game shows. That's how we differentiate ourselves. Our slogan is: “Think of it as Music Television. Only with music.”

So how can you next marry art and technology?

We'll be launching a commerce connection for The Tube—a “see it, hear it, buy it” concept—in the next 90 days. But we won't sell on TV. We'll protect the integrity of The Tube at all costs. All the entertainment will be on the TV screen. If we keep clutter off the channel, we can play more music and stay credible. We don't want to be in your face, going, “Buy, buy, buy.”