Time to change the record

MTV has spent the last two decades defining American teen culture. But the more savvy British youth has refused to be taken in. This is where Murray Boland, the new man at the channel, comes in. By Meg Carter 'MTV used to stand for one world and one market, but the days of being all things to all people are long gone'
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The Independent Online

MTV: lynchpin of new youth culture, or corporate TV for the undiscerning masses? In America, where MTV was born back in 1981 and still reigns strong, the debate still simmers with the Web littered with personal rants such as "Why MTV sucks ..." Closer to home, however, it's a rather different story. For while awareness of MTV in Britain is leagues ahead of the competition, the channel has never been a major cultural force this side of the Atlantic. Now, against stiff competition from rival youth-oriented satellite stations like teen channel Trouble and Sky One, MTV wants this to change.

To achieve this, MTV has turned to Murray Boland, an early pioneer of British youth TV who started out as a reporter on Network 7. Boland has joined MTV as the UK head of production from independent production company, Princess Productions, where he was head of development. Previously, he spent some years developing "post-pub TV" including God's Gift at Granada Television. Boland also developed the BBC's The Sunday Show, produced The Word and the pilot of The Big Breakfast for Channel 4.

"At the moment, MTV in the UK is quite peripheral," Boland readily admits. "Audiences are growing, but not significantly enough for MTV to have truly wide-scale influence - for it to be the station people always turn to first. MTV's been around for such a long time and is an enormous global brand. It's a huge cultural force in the US but it has never been a huge cultural force in Britain. In America it is the centre of youth culture, in the UK it is not. That's the challenge."

MTV's early growth in the UK was limited by a combination of slow cable and satellite penetration and its initial scheduling of back-to-back videos dominated by US artists. The channel was subsequently re-positioned: as MTV Europe - a homogeneous, pan-European youth channel. This certainly appealed to international advertisers looking for cost-effective ways of reaching the 16- to 24-year-old audience. But MTV's mantra that "youth" is a single community with shared attitudes and musical tastes that transcend national and language boundaries was not so popular with British viewers. Which is why two years ago MTV Europe was replaced with national stations, including MTV UK.

Around the same time, MTV introduced new channels to the MTV "family" - VH1 for thirtysomething viewers; MTV spin-off M2 and then, last year, three new digital channels: MTV Base dedicated to R&B, hip-hop and dance; VH1 Classic (classic hits from the Sixties to Nineties); and MTV Extra, a counter-scheduled version of MTV. The strategy was a response to the growing sophistication of a youth market which could no longer be lumped together as a homogeneous mass. The net effect, however, has been mixed.

For a start, the creation of niche music TV services seems to have diluted the MTV umbrella brand. "To a certain extent the parent brand has lost its absolute value to all people with the development of new MTV sub-brands," says Kim Douglas, head of research strategy at advertising agency, Magic Hat. "MTV used to stand for one world, one market. But the days of being all things to all people are long gone. There's only one way to build the future of MTV and that's by investing in the product - which is what they are doing. But with music now increasingly diverse, I'm not sure 'MTV Equals Music' is so clear any more."

Others complain that MTV is out of touch. "It's stood still while the rest of the world has moved on," says Sylvia Meli, group planning director at London advertising agency, Grey, pointing to the channel's emphasis on teenbands and chart acts such as Britney Spears, 5ive and Vengaboys. "It's now seen as monolithic, mainstream and even more commercial than it was before." Others, meanwhile, suggest it's not done enough creatively with its programming.

In spite of this, MTV reports steady audience growth. Last year, ratings for MTV in the UK and Ireland rose by 13 per cent year on year - "an achievement that defied the market trend", the station cooed. Growth, however, has been in line with the growth of cable and satellite in the UK generally. "MTV's year-on-year performance is good. But the bigger challenge is how it performs against the growing number of other channels with youth content also going for the 16- to 24-year-old audience," says Stewart Easterbrook, group head of TV negotiation at media specialist, Starcom Motive Partnership. "When you look at MTV's share of 16- to 24-year-old commercial TV viewing impacts it had a 7.8 per cent share of satellite TV last year - behind Sky One. MTV's brand awareness is now ahead of its actual market position."

Boland, however, is confident MTV UK has established a solid base from which to launch its bid to claim youth culture's centre gound. Since becoming UK-focused, it has successfully boosted its authority and credibility with British viewers with acts such as Blink 182, TLC and Moby. He claims: "Successful shows like The Lick (MTV's R&B show presented by Trevor Nelson) and Brand New are unique on British TV, have an established following, they are authoritative, and viewers see them as worth watching and listening to."

MTV has also established a solid track record in developing new talent - Davina McCall, Cat Deeley and Donna Air are all now making their mark in mainstream terrestrial TV. Boland, however, admits there is still room for improvement - and for developing new British formats and for tightening the daily schedules to create more appointments to view. "Many people still believe all we play is back to back music videos," he says.

An on-going problem is that MTV's audience tends to dip in and out. Tighter scheduling and clearer signposting are, therefore, essential, Boland adds. Younger viewers' expectations have changed since the Eighties, he explains. "Their interests are more diverse with different values," he says. "You could never revisit The Word and shock for the sake of it TV. You need to be thoughtful and more interesting to attract and keep a youth audience now."

Until now, however, most of MTV's more innovative and memorable shows have come out of the US, which created programmes ranging from The Real World to Beavis and Butthead - both of which became staple fare on MTV networks around the world. Even its current on-screen idents featuring a family of Scandinavian yokels, the Jukka Brothers, was made in the US. Yet MTV UK airs just four hours a day of non-UK produced programmes. Boland is, therefore, determined to develop more original "must-watch" viewing fare and broaden the definition of "music programming".

"We also need to better engage with the audience on air and off air. So we are moving towards more live programming - with shows like The Lick going on the road. We're looking to do more of this to build a stronger local presence," he adds.

But with little additional budget being made available in the short-term from MTV's US parent, Viacom, Boland may have his work cut out. Much will depend on his ability to move the channel closer to its British audience's heartland without risk-taking that leads to volatile ratings and the alienation of the channel's advertisers.