But customizing content to reach the audience on the street is only part of MTV’s “glocalization” strategy. Reaching new markets means extending MTV brand culture across all brand properties. When a global brand expands it can either staff its new office with its own people—hoping that a strong culture will prevail—or it can hire local staff to help it assimilate and gain acceptance in its new home. MTV, which grows through both acquisition of local enterprises or organically through pure start up, tends to go local.
“What you have to do is start getting people who live there, working for you,” says Hansen. “Making sure that you can provide a point of view. Which really truly represents where that market is at. Every market has a different access to music or children’s point of view that happens outside that market.”
The flip side of this is the difficulty of controlling a brand across vastly diverse cultures and still be able to appeal locally. Considering that MTV Networks offers texting, web, television, and gaming in 164 countries, keeping staff, goals and content consistent is no small feat.
“When we set a channel up,” Hansen explains, “we always provide a set of parameters in terms of standards of things we require. At every network group around the world we have creative heads whose job it is to bring people up to speed, to help coach people, to help hire people locally, and if necessary, to make sure that if there is a weakness in an area, we can help cover that. Because obviously an MTV channel that doesn’t look good enough is not going to do the business for us, let alone for the audience. There’s a higher expectation.”
It’s a balancing act though, particularly in acquisitions. “You’ve got to be careful that you don’t patronize someone whose organization you’ve acquired,” says Hansen. “What we try to do is bring their point of view in and hopefully that will shape the overall complexion of what we do internationally anyway. They might have a relevant point of view that could actually help take us to a better place.”
The future is dependent on this inclusive approach to running a global brand and MTV is looking to make it work in return. Recently the group began collaborating locally to program internationally. This allows for programs that might have been relatively expensive for one local market by using them across several different regions.
One area where MTV hopes to distinguish itself, Hansen suggests, is the quality of its creative work: “We’re one brand, I think, who actually really care about investing creatively in what we do. We don’t just bung a bunch of videos or acquire a bunch of programs together. We work very hard at the graphics, the attitude, the point of view.”
Asked to judge the quality of MTV’s offering, director of Syracuse University’s Center for the Study of Popular Television, Robert Thompson says that while it’s “not always, maybe not even usually” good, MTV does sometimes achieve greatness in its programming. He points to specific episodes of “The Real World” and post-September 11th reporting as examples at MTV in the US.
Obviously money helps MTV achieve its high-quality production and staffing goals, but creativity isn’t necessarily linked to money. The company makes use of its extensive global network to bounce creative ideas around, e.g., an advertising spot where five seconds is added by each recipient and passed on. MTV refers to this exercise as Exquisite Corpse (an appropriate homage to the surrealist masters whose “mystique of accidents” artwork is arguably an ancestor of MTV).
Cristián Jofré, creative director at MTV Networks International, credits the exercise for the “very playful creativity between all the channels around the world.” Hansen describes it as a “way of keeping a creative relationship between each of the markets – just by trading photographs and audio over night. Just for people who are bouncing ideas off of each other.”
Mind the Generation Gap
An age difference between audience and staff at MTV is inevitable (and unavoidable with MTV’s kid-focused brand Nickelodeon), but the idea is to bring in staff who are as close to understanding the target as possible. “We don’t want a bunch of people my age who are programming channels,” Hansen says. “We want people who are actively participating in those worlds. If you don’t have that relevant point of view, you end up being more like a broadcaster, then like a niche channel.”
Hansen credits this to the success of MTV’s ventures: “We just always felt that the thing with MTV is that there are moments on the channel where someone speaks to you or the channel speaks to you. There are always little moments of opportunity to make sure that it doesn’t appear like a factory.”
Hansen says the company is absolutely committed to seeking new ways to interact with its audience through new technology. “We spend a lot of time making sure that we are as interactive as possible, as a brand. There’s lots of ways the audience can relate to us – by phone, texting, faxing, email, whatever way you can find of communicating with the channel. It’s not only a potential way of building a relationship with that audience. But it’s also another way of getting them to respond to us.”
The advent of new technology makes the growth of MTV limitless. “In a digital world, we’re able to provide lots of tribal points of view as well,” says Hansen. “So you can provide MTV, but you can have an R&B channel, you can have a dance channel, an alternative rock channel, a pop channel. You can do lots of different things within that, which will enable you to create a much wider audience.”
Meanwhile in the Rest of the World
While MTV faces regional challenges—such as political and economic instability and local broadcasting regulations—it also deals with a daily onslaught of competition both on television and in viewers’ lives.
Cunningham acknowledges that general interests like sports, family, drugs and school all compete for audience attention, but he suggests that these distractions also represent an area to mine for ideas and inspiration. “A few years ago we did a global brand equity study—far more than what most brands look at when they talk about a brand equity study. We looked at not just our brand [and] the typical things like our competition—but how did our consumers interact with other analogous categories and how can we either borrow from that or do we need to play in that field?”
“It liberates us, actually, in terms of creative vision,” he continues. “It allows us to have a broader canvas to draw from. When you understand the core motivation of these consumers, and you realize that they are the same people living these other lives in other places, it gives you this new inspiration.”
Of course, competition can also be found more specifically in the media space and especially in the genre MTV built: music television.
It’s hard for anyone to compete with such a colossal entity and at least one of the competitors mentioned money as a necessary competitive component. However, MTV’s competition does have a few advantages.
Local brands like Channel V in Asia (Star TV) or MuchMusic (CHUM Television) in Canada have regional distribution, regulation and/or loyalty advantages that MTV might not access as easily. And while it doesn’t in and of itself make a strong brand, it does offer a leg up, and a niche.
Asked to cite who or what their competition is, the music television brands we spoke with tended to avoid naming MTV. Whether it’s modesty, good salesmanship or naiveté, this is in part because MTV may not be on a level playing field with distribution access (for instance, in MuchMusic’s market), and partly because of the now-commonplace notion that MTV’s name is an oxymoron.
“They’re called music television, but they’re really not,” says David Kines, vice president and general manager for all MuchMusic channels. “They’re a youth lifestyle culture channel, which is great, and they do a fabulous job of what they are, but other than us and Fuse, I don’t think there’s any other channel out there that is just doing pure music.”
Susan Arthur, director of marketing at CHUM, insists MTV is complementary to MuchMusic’s mission. “MuchMusic is truly the nation’s music station; MTV is more of a lifestyle station. They take the musical artists that people know and love and they integrate them into lifestyle shows. Whereas MuchMusic takes the artist that you know and love and gets them to play music for you.”
Marc Juris, president of Fuse (Rainbow Media Holdings), which competes with MTV on its home turf, says people might choose Fuse over MTV if they “actually want to hear music.” Comparing Fuse to MTV, he says, “We’re about new music and emerging artists, and seeing all the cool stuff that you’ll see on MTV in three months. We’re the Paris fashion show.”
Citing a 12 to 34 year old target demographic, Fuse re-launched (from Much USA) 14 months ago with the intent to dedicate 24/7 to music programming (including videos and concerts), an area in which some argue MTV has lost track. Fuse’s reported 37 million viewers compare with MTV’s 86 million US viewers and with MTV2, its direct competition, at 50 million US viewers. Considering MTV’s international network, Fuse could appear to be a small pinprick in the massive side of the media mastodon. But since 80 percent of MTV’s revenue is US generated, Fuse’s slice of the market share is not inconsequential.
Looking at the potential effectiveness of smaller music channels against at least a section of the MTV machine, television analyst Thompson thinks there is room for all. “What you have is a bunch of music television services available that some people are finding useful as alternatives to MTV—something to flip back and forth.”
“At any given time, the percentage of people who are going to want to watch just videos is smaller than the number you can get by putting on a show like the ‘Real World’ or ‘Singled Out,’ ” says Thompson.
MTV obviously still offers music videos, especially on MTV2, but its move away from videos and in to more lucrative programming is also an area that allows smaller brands to get a leg up. As the first to market, MTV has the advantage of brand awareness but others can also study MTV’s history and decisions for a quick lesson on how to succeed in the space.
MTV’s size and success, Fuse’s Juris suggests, is, ironically, a potential vulnerability. “When you are that big, and you need to turn around your boat? You’re turning around an ocean liner. We’re turning around a speedboat,” he says. “We’re agile. We can move fast. We can take risks that they can’t take. We can explore things that they might not necessarily want to explore. We can be about music.”
Although Thompson believes that no one is able to equal MTV at the moment, in part due to its well-established identity, he agrees that a potential area of weakness is its own baggage. “MTV is all about selling the notion of youth, anti-establishment, the cutting edge, the different drummer. And of course it’s coming from Viacom, [and] there is nothing less anti-establishment and rebellious than Viacom. This is a huge corporation, the definition of a conservative monster entity, and [yet MTV is] incredibly good at providing entertainment for people. That is an interesting trick, and they’ve been doing it for (nearly) twenty-five years effectively.”
“On the other hand,” he continues, “that is always vulnerable, in that what is the ‘happening’ cultural expression of a generation at any given time is a terribly fickle thing. You’ve seen how it happens in fashion, where clothing worn by a manufacturer that is incredibly hip at one time becomes completely the opposite. Sometimes it can happen very, very quickly.”
Future’s So Bright
“MTV is in an interesting situation of its history,” says Thompson “You have now a lot of kids who are growing up in homes where the parents were the ones that watched MTV during their childhood. Where the parents, in fact, may still be watching. So what MTV has to do is manage to continually adjust itself, so that it remains the ‘something’ that young people want to watch. And that’s not easy to do. It’s easy when you first come out. It’s the thing that all the young kids are watching but all of a sudden when you’ve got kids looking outside of their playpens and mom and dad camped on the couch watching MTV, most kids are then going to associate that with the old folks as opposed to with the new.”
Or as Juris puts it, “That’s a casualty of 25 years of being a youth brand. Suddenly the youth brand is old.”
Maybe. Or maybe not. In its infancy one of MTV’s biggest videos was Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It” (off the album Stay Hungry, which MTV appears to be doing). The song and video perfectly depict a desperate-to-rock Gen X kid rebelling against his captain-bring-down boomer dad. It perfectly (if a bit cartoonishly) captured the child/parent rebellion/authority zeitgeist of 1984. But one era’s zeitgeist is another’s ancient history.
As Cunningham mentioned and Gen Y (or Millennial) reports show, parents today are much more involved in their kids’ lives and decisions. So while today’s youth rebels, it’s not necessarily against age. We cannot be sure that the suits at MTV have a pulse on generation next but if their track record is any guide, there's a good chance they’ll be confounding us for another twenty years.