Music far and wide

New MTV show is also distributed by satellite, Internet

MTV is getting Unplugged in a whole new way. Tonight, the cable network launches Music in High Places, a one-hour program that offers some of today's top music acts in locations once reserved for National Geographic: Alanis Morissette at Arizona's Canyon de Chelly, Collective Soul walking through a casbah in Morocco, Boyz II Men singing on the border between North and South Korea, Shawn Colvin frolicking in the water off Tahiti—to name a few.

Moreover, in addition to combining nature and acoustic performances, Music in High Places appears on an odd trio of distribution platforms.

Before airing on MTV, it appeared on DirecTV and will be on MSN. The latter is recutting and airing unseen concert footage on the Web, as well as adding educational attachments that further explore each locale.

"There has never been this kind of compatibility between satellite, a cable network and the Internet before," says Music in High Places' creator and executive producer Parvene Michaels.

The first episodes debuted on DirecTV last October, getting weekend play on the satellite distributor's Free View Events Series—a continuous 24-hour rotation of exclusive concerts and events available only to DirecTV customers. DirecTV airs a new episode each month, and MTV can air it six months later.

"When [the producers] first came to us, they were just looking to get some sort of distribution. I think, partly in terms of the success they have had with us and in getting top artists to come aboard, they were able to go ahead and land a cable network, as well," says Michael Thornton, DirecTV's senior vice president of programming acquisitions.

Says Paul DeBenedittis, MTV senior vice president of program planning and scheduling, "This is the first time we have ever done anything like this. DirecTV has been a great partner. At the end of the day, it's all about music, and we will present it in a different way and promote it in a different way than they will."

MTV airs four segments this week at midnight ET/PT in a special kick-off promotion. This season's remaining eight episodes will probably air in similar time periods, according to DeBenedittis.

In addition to performing in exotic locations, the artists will become tour guides, showing viewers through ancient burial grounds, temples and dungeons. Michaels, who came up with the concept 10 years ago, says the producers want to be as unintrusive as possible. "When we take artists to an area, we introduce them to a guide who gives them information, and the artists ask all of the questions. And usually their questions are very intuitive."

To back the expensive series, the producers brought on three main sponsors: RCA, MSN and Radio Shack. The program also gives part of its proceeds to the Grammy Foundation, which aids arts and music efforts in schools.

DirecTV and MTV say they are looking forward to a second season, and the producers are locking up performers and locations. "We can't tell you right now who will be on board next season," says Michaels, "but a lot of artists are showing interest after seeing the initial episodes."