'Hey groovers! Ist die neue dance zensation!!' Alex Spillius turns on to MTV
ENRICO SILVESTRIN, 23, MTV presenter and Euro-hunk, doesn't have the sort of hairstyle you might expect from a man whose surname sounds like a mass-market shampoo. Greased back into a pony tail and dyed deep red, it is a touch too grungey, though complemented appropriately by a nose ring, earring, goatee and indiscernible tattoo on the right bicep.

Enrico has been at MTV Europe for nine months. "It's a cool job," he purrs in a heavy Italian accent. "Because I'm foreign to the audience and they're foreign to me we learn from eechudder." Enrico has learnt that he is craved by pubescent females all over the continent. "I look at the stamps to see where they come from, it's such a cool thing . . . ."

Simone Angel became an MTV presenter four years ago after moving to London from her native Netherlands when 18. A bouncy bottle blonde with the kind of hyperactive features that have you reaching for the remote control, she speaks excellent English to Enrico's very good, though her accent can shift confusingly from Amsterdam to east London to Liverpool at the drop of a diphthong.

Not surprisingly, Simone reveals: "I don't feel Dutch. I don't feel English. I don't know what I feel, it's odd. I hang between borders. You can drop me anywhere in the world, especially anywhere in Europe, and I feel at home." This is said without a trace of irony, but there's not much call for irony at MTV towers in Camden Town, London.

Anywhere Simone lands on her busy schedule she can watch MTV Europe. Its non-stop diet of music videos, or canned music with pictures if you prefer, spiced with movie news and the animated freaks Beavis and Butthead, is pumped out by cable or satellite to homes, bars, clubs, gymnasiums and hotels in 37 countries. Make that 38, as Lebanon came on stream a couple of weeks ago.

The channel reaches 61 million homes in Europe, more than the original MTV in the United States. Viacom, the global media giant that owns the station, recently launched MTV Mandarin to homes in China, Taiwan and Singapore, and MTV Asia to India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and the Philippines. Add those to MTV Japan, Latino (Latin America) and Brasil, and MTV Music Television is received by 143.5 million households. Only the BBC and CNN, both with smaller reaches, rival it for brand recognition.

"We are in a quarter of the world's TV households," says Bill Roedy, president of MTV Networks International, "but the even better thing is we have three-quarters of the world to go." On his "to do" list are channels for South Africa, Australia, Canada, Russia and the Middle East.

Unlike McDonald's or Coca-Cola, whose products trade on being identical worldwide, MTV has one brand with regionally adjusted and produced material. The container is the same but the contents are different - though given the global predominance of American music, in Europe it accounts for 30- 40 per cent of videos shown. Each channel is designed to reflect its audience, so MTV Europe, which opened in 1987, was created in the perceived image of continental youth: techno-friendly, mobile, pop and film-crazy, environmentally aware pro-Europeans. English was chosen as a default language, the only one that might be understood by 14-year-olds from Reykjavik to Rimini.

Apart from Jacques Delors's office, it is hard to imagine anywhere where the ideal of European unity is pushed so hard as at MTV Europe, which, so they say, transcends national boundaries by communicating through the international language of music. There are 19 nationalities on the staff of 370. "We have Greeks and Turks working side by side, Lebanese and Israelis, even British and French," says Roedy.

Brent Hansen, creative director of MTV Europe, is a loquacious New Zealander aged 39 who in full flow describes his channel as a "sophisticated and dynamic interface between the diversity of cultures and the similarity of cultures". And there were you thinking it was wall-to- wall pop videos.

But while the station likes to trumpet its "pro-social" campaigns on Aids, the environment, racism, drugs and so on, if you watched MTV for six hours solid and blinked once you might miss them. With very few exceptions the social messages are in 15 to 20-second stings that blend into the seamless reel of fast-cut, gyrating, futuristic, graphically charged videos and adverts. The bland repetition of the format may make us cynical British tut, and the bizarre Euro-babble some presenters lapse into and many adverts feature, particularly for German dance compilations - "Hey groovers! Ist die neue dance zensation!!" - may make us snigger, but to be fair MTV really is more than a music station. When the Iron Curtain came down, freedom meant jeans, Michael Jackson and MTV, as well as democracy. Two East German soldiers were pictured on the Berlin Wall, MTV umbrella aloft; the deputy mayor of St Petersburg called it "a latter-day Peter the Great - once again opening Russia to the West." Faxes from youngsters otherwise isolated from the outside world by the war in Bosnia reach the MTV office. Jelena Meznaric, a Slovenian now studying in Edinburgh, reports that MTV is a major comfort to relatives in Sarajevo. "That's the only contact they have, apart from the Internet. If the TV works, it's MTV - it's a release, an escape."

Recalling her teens in Ljubljana and Zagreb, where MTV was available on satellite and then cable, she says: "I don't think I could have lived without it. More than anything else it made us feel we were in Europe, the presenters were talking to an entire continent." But much as MTV may be an emancipation, Jelena argues: "When your country is falling apart, the last thing you are thinking about is MTV and Western bands; it's local culture that's really important."

As the optimism of the late 1980s - driven partly by the collapse of the Eastern Bloc - has fragmented, MTV has had to check its rear-view mirror as it speeds along the information highway. In Germany, the Netherlands, France and Italy, indigenous stations have sprung up to pose a local challenge, as young viewers turn to channels on which they can understand every word and see more of their own country's talent.

Since its launch in October 1993, Viva has reached 15 million cable homes in Germany, Austria and German-speaking Switzerland, compared to MTV's 22 million, playing 25-35 per cent German artists. "We hope to overtake them soon," says Viva's Klaus Schumacher from the company's Cologne offices. "Kids like to see our music and get information in the German language." The French channel MCM is prospering by supplying 55 per cent French music, roughly the proportion in the charts, suggesting that the on-line imperialism of MTV's largely Anglo-American music diet hasn't altered tastes significantly.

In the Netherlands it may have contributed to the reverse. The local Music Factory channel is thriving on traditional Dutch songs; ballads and lullabies sung by grey-haired couples are storming up the charts.

"People are tired of house music and want the old songs. All that technotronic, it's not music, and MTV is identified with that," says a journalist at the daily De Telegraaf. "Of course we Dutch are very Europe-minded still, but we want to give more priority to our own thing."

This lifestyle nationalism is no surprise to Brent Hansen. "There is an incredible 'me' culture now in Europe within each individual nation. MTV is international broadcasting of a type that will never be seen again. I guess it was a quirk of history that optimism was so high [in 1987], and an opportunity was there." It would be stretching a point to say a TV channel viewed in 61 million homes was struggling, but many industry analysts reckon there are simply not enough pan-European companies to sustain advertising revenue in the face of indigenous competition.

MTV has naturally not been sluggish. It has launched separate VH-1 channels in Britain and Germany, targeted at older viewers and local advertisers. MTV in Germany already has a German language track for adverts.

In the light of all this, the channel's stated Euro-idealism has a distinctly commercial ring. Last year's get-out-and-vote drive before the European elections seemed worthy, but the more that young viewers think of themselves as young Europeans, the more they will crave the trans-continental chic MTV offers. And the more social coverage it provides, the better it looks with advertisers and cable companies increasingly faced with offering either MTV or a domestic music station.

A disproportionate number of faxes and competition entries to MTV come from the East, starved of Western pop culture and pluralism. The station seems more valuable to culturally remote areas than to Western countries reacting against being thrown into a Euro-blender.

MTV opened the living-room doors of Western Europe with aplomb, but in some it may have overstayed its welcome.