The beat goes on

Today, MTV launches its hundredth station - in Africa - bringing it into more homes than any other channel. Johnny Davis switches on to a global phenomenon
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The Independent Online

Brent Hansen's office is the sort of place a teenager could call home. The shelves are piled with plastic toys. A poster illustrating the history of the turntable hangs on the wall. There's an acid-yellow director's chair commemorating The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie. A widescreen television plays the latest pop videos. And next to his desk, looking out over the West End of London, there's a framed photograph of Hansen posing with three familiar figures. "The Beastie Boys," he grins. "I love 'em."

This year, Hansen turns 50, but keeping in touch with his inner teen is part of his job. As president and chief executive of MTV Networks Europe, Hansen is in charge of a big slice of the world's most widely distributed TV network, watched in 412 million homes, 164 territories and 18 languages.

In the Eighties, MTV was one channel broadcasting music videos to America. Now, it's a head-spinning array of bespoke sub-channels - MTV2, MTV Hits, MTV Brand New, etc, etc. It owns the comedy channel Paramount, the children's channel Nickelodeon and the classic-rock channel VH1, and generates its own "appointment viewing" series, of which The Osbournes and Jackass are the two most successful.

Under Hansen, MTV Europe has grown from a single pan-European station - showing the same stuff in Barcelona or Bremen - to 45 regionalised channels. There's MTVs Italia, España, Polska, Germany and MTV Netherlands. Hansen has overseen the launches of MTV Romania, MTV Nordic and MTV Russia. And today, he adds African MTV to the list: "The last big uncharted market," he says. It will take MTV's global tally to 100 stations.

With his Bob Geldof hair, surfer's wardrobe and New Zealand accent, it's no surprise to learn that Hansen rolled up at MTV while backpacking around Europe with his wife in the late Eighties. MTV Europe was about to launch, and he put himself forward.

A key factor in MTV's success has been its understanding of the importance of local programming. While it's certainly an American-funded behemoth (owned by Viacom), the station realised that forcing the US Billboard Top 100 into the world's ears wasn't going to get them far. Starbucks or McDonald's serve up identical menus in Boston, Bristol and Beijing - MTV makes sure it adds a selection of local dishes.

So Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake are the faces of MTV in South-east Asia, but so are Indonesia's Padi and Stefanie Sun of Singapore. Italy has MTV Kitchen, a cooking show, and India the self-explanatory MTV Cricket. "Our strategy has been to work hard not to be seen as an imperialising, American brand," Hansen says. "Yes, we represent a bunch of American shows, but you have to be able to do things editorially that make a difference, otherwise you have no relationship with the audience."

Two floors below Hansen's office is the team that's launching African MTV. Alex Okosi, 30, is the general manager of MTV Networks Africa. He's from Nigeria, via New York, and has been working on the channel launch for two years. "It's incredibly exciting times," he says. "It's going to be great for us to have a platform to showcase African talent." The station will be known as MTV Base and concentrate on R&B and rap. "So you might see Nelly and Usher, but also a Nigerian act like 2Face," Okosi says.

A trial feed featuring MTVs UK and France has already proved popular, and from tonight MTV Base will be beamed into 1.3 million African homes. As cable TV is scarce, the goal is to get MTV Base taken up by terrestrial TV as quickly as possible. "Then we could get audiences of seven million a night in Lagos alone," Okosi says. "But we're talking about breaking a whole continent. That's hard."

Initially, the channel will operate on a 30 per cent African and 70 per cent US programming split. There will be no presenters at first. Much of the station's local programming has been produced by teams across Africa, with the London office acting as overall creative director. Dudu Qubu, one of Okosi's colleagues, plays me a tape of the first show MTV Base will air: Spotlight profiles local talent, in this case 2Face and the South African singer Lebo M.

MTV - music television - launched in New York on 1 August 1981. Famously, the first video broadcast was "Video Killed The Radio Star" by Buggles, and the first words uttered were: "This is rock and roll!"

The early format was created in the image of Top 40 radio, with perky young men and women - VJs, or video jockeys - introducing clips. Record labels often had to be cajoled into handing over footage for free, and the early videos were often basic promotional shorts or wonky live footage.

MTV was nothing if not a product of the Eighties. As cable spread across America, record companies twigged that the station was a promotional goldmine. By the mid-1980s, MTV had come to embody the values of contemporary America. Videos by Madonna, Springsteen and Paula Abdul sealed their success.

A row soon broke out over MTV's selection of videos by black artists - or rather lack of them. It took threats from Michael Jackson's record company to get MTV to playlist Jackson, who was at No 1 with "Billie Jean", paving the way for the success of acts such as Lionel Richie and DeBarge.

The station then embraced the decade's most vital music with Yo! MTV Raps, a hip-hop video show. Not only did it circulate rap throughout the country, it took black urban dress-codes, speech and attitudes to every white suburb in Middle America.

Videos entered a new era in the Nineties, with auteurs such as Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Hype Williams making mould-breaking three-minute pop promos before heading off to Hollywood. The glitterfest that is the MTV Video Music Awards - an antidote to the Grammys - ensured that the promo became a legitimate art-form. Britney, Eminem and Timberlake owe their careers to breakthrough videos. Today, it's unthinkable that a pop act would be launched without securing MTV time via an eye-catching, wallet-busting video.

MTV continued to diversify. Specialist sub-channels sprang up to cater for adolescents' ever-fragmenting tastes: MTV2 (alternative rock), VH1 (classic rock), MTV Base (R&B), CMT (country). Then there were channels that had nothing to do with music - Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, Spike TV (for men). Logo, a channel devoted to gay and lesbian programming, is due to launch in America in June.

The network also stepped up the number of programmes it generated itself, a greatest hits of which might include Beavis and Butt-head, the "soapumentary" The Real World, Total Request Live, The Tom Green Show, MTV Cribs, Punk'd, Undressed, The Osbournes, Jackass, Newlyweds and the evergreen Unplugged.

Using the rule of thumb that it would maintain a 60 per cent base of US programming, with the balance filled with local music and media favourites, MTV set off around the globe. MTV Europe launched in 1987, followed by MTV Latin America (1993), MTV Mandarin (1995), MTV India (1996), MTV Australia (1997), MTV Russia (1998), MTV Japan (2001) and so on and on. The launch of African MTV in effect marks the final stage of their global expansion.

Not everyone has been happy with the station's inexorable rise. From the beginning, MTV has been criticised for being overly commercial and for belittling the importance of "proper music" by placing an emphasis on flashy visuals and identikit pop stars. An early song by Beck was called "MTV Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack", while ancient punks The Dead Kennedys recorded "MTV Get Off the Air".

What's more, the station has competition now. Plenty of it. When it first arrived in Europe in 1987, MTV was the only channel on the dial. The satellite and cable revolution changed that. Today, there are 23 music channels in the UK alone. "It's a low barrier of entry," Hansen says. "You only need two or three people to start a music channel these days. Doesn't mean you can make a decent one, though."

Hansen says all music channels are created in MTV's image. That's true, given that it was the first. But the competition must be doing something right, because they're quietly nibbling away at MTV's dominance.

"For a generation who have never experienced anything other than multi-channel TV, MTV is just one of a long list of options - Smash Hits TV, Kerrang! TV, etc," says Peter Robinson, the editor of the pop website "If a dud song comes on, you just flick channels. Watching the screens in Top Shop for half an hour gives you a better idea of the current pop scene than watching a day of MTV."

MTV's strongest challenge has come from Emap, the magazine publisher, which in 1996 bought the first video-jukebox channel, The Box. The company's music division has expanded to seven UK channels to MTV's nine. Emap has 42 per cent of the market, MTV 53 per cent.

"MTV and Emap fight hand-to-hand for market share every hour," says Shirley Renwick, the managing director of Emap Performance TV. "MTV used to have 100 per cent market share. We saw the end of that: that was fun! Viacom is one of the biggest media companies in the world and us little Brits took them on."

But MTV still has that almighty brand. Mark Ratcliff, the managing director of Murmur, a qualitative research company, says: "Focus groups from London to Singapore see MTV as something of a trailblazer," he says. "The conservative note discerned by some at the start has diminished. There's also a sense in which the MTV brand is trusted enough that it can take up social causes - Aids, the slave trade - without viewers wincing. There isn't the residual hypocrisy you detect when certain soft-drinks companies start banging on about racism, or initiatives to help schools."

With the world's TVs now truly conquered, Brent Hansen has his eyes on the next prize: digital platforms, by which he means mobile phones and future iPod-type devices that will vie for the world's pocket money. How does a 50-year-old possibly remain enthusiastic for all this stuff? "Well, you don't see Julian Cope on MTV as much as perhaps I'd like him to be," he says. "But to borrow one of his famous phrases, I've always seen myself as a forward-thinking motherfucker." Can't really disagree with that.