The Music TV Wars

Reality Killed the Video Star

Maybe you've noticed a wall in your neighborhood plastered with posters of Sally Struthers. Or maybe her chubby face has beckoned to you from the side of a bus or phone booth. As usual, Sally's begging for help, but it's not on behalf of Save the Children this time. "Every day, thousands of videos go unplayed. Please help save music videos," she pleads, playing her silly part in an ad campaign for Fuse, a cable music channel.

The ads aren't just a calling card for a new network; they're also part of an aggressive attack on MTV, which has long reigned unchallenged in the world of music television. (Other music networks such as VH1 and BET are all owned by MTV's corporate parent, Viacom.) In full assault mode, Fuse put up a billboard directly across from MTV's Times Square headquarters and distributed paper coffee cups around the city that said, "Where's the M in Emptee-vee?"

People have been complaining about the lack of music on MTV since the mid '90s, when it discovered that series like The Real World delivered ratings much more effectively than amorphous blocks of videos ever could. Sure, MTV now airs plenty of programs about music artists—behind-the-scenes stuff like Cribs and Making the Video and Diary. But music content is dwarfed by their popular slate of reality series: Road Rules, Jackass, The Osbournes, Punk'd, and Sorority Life.

Only 22 years old, MTV also loves to mythologize itself, recycling its greatest hits via histories of TRL or Headbangers Ball, and it squeezes every last drop out of The Real World and Road Rules with frequent rematches and reunions. The most hilarious bit of self-deification came a few weeks ago in the form of Bash, a roast for TRL cipher Carson Daly, a personality-free symbol of the sanitized, all-pleasing MTV. Daly sat onstage while stars like Britney and Kid Rock called him a star-fucker, ass-kisser, lech, and chameleon; they showed embarrassing clips of Carson gibbering faux-ghetto slang with hip-hop guests, then another of him sitting cross-legged with *NSync, chatting about eggnog. "A clean slate with a blank head," Nelly declared, adding "We all love him." After all, who wants to piss off the powers-that-be at MTV?

Fuse does—their ad campaign is the equivalent of mooning their elders. You have to admire their moxie, this upstart taking on a corporate monopoly. The trouble is that Fuse ain't exactly an upstart. It was formerly known as MuchMusic, a Canadian network that's been trying to nose its way into the American market for a few years. This year, MuchMusic USA severed its ties from Canada and performed the media equivalent of an Extreme Makeover: It changed its name and overhauled programming, styling itself as a renegade channel raging against MTV's corporate edifice—a spurious stance, since Fuse is itself part of Cablevision.

And Fuse's battle cry—that music television is dying out—isn't strictly true. MTV already covered its ass with MTV2, which fulfills the functions of the old MTV, playing videos for most of its 24 hours. By the end of the year, MTV2 will be available in 50 million homes, while Fuse was available in 31.2 million as of June. MTV2 has quietly skulked around in the cable hinterlands for six years, but this week it suddenly launched its first ever advertising campaign. MTV2 general manager David Cohn denies that it was sparked by Fuse: "To make this kind of financial investment in response to them would be crazy," he insists. Either way, the music-video war has officially begun.

Looking back at tapes of early MTV, it seems hilariously raggedy: clueless VJs hanging out in the studio as a weird slipstream of videos glides by. Nothing bands from Nowheresville sprang up and became icons, and for a moment it felt like no one was guarding the door. MTV ushered in a bum-rush that knocked radio programmers off their feet—briefly. What made the channel so appealing back then—and what neither Fuse nor MTV2 really has—was its mutant eclectism. As recently as the early '90s you could tune in and watch Dr. Dre followed by Guns N' Roses followed by Siouxsie & the Banshees followed by C&C Music Factory—music culture in a blender. Today such a jumble of genres is regarded as a potential "trainwreck," the word DJs use for a bad mix. In videoland, if you switch styles, "you give people a reason to tune out every three minutes," says MTV2's Cohn.

So both Fuse and MTV2 divide their music programming into bite-sized blocks. MTV2 built its reputation on college rock but is trying hard to branch out by devoting a chunk of the weekend to hip-hop with "Sucker Free Sundays." Meanwhile, Fuse targets a younger demographic with its puree of nu-metal and post-Green Day pop-punk, interspersed with occasional blocks of alt-rock, commercial rap (under the banner "Authentic Hip Hop"), and even a Latino music show.

Above all, Fuse's main gimmick to differentiate itself from MTV2 is interactivity. Their new name signals a desire "to fuse different media platforms," according to network president Marc Juris. That means finding a way to integrate instant messaging, gaming, and Web browsing into a TV context. Juris says Fuse chooses its playlist by letting the audience vote for videos on Oven Fresh, and it lets viewers speak to each other via Dedicate Live, an update on the old-fashioned radio dedication that clutters the music video screen with text boxes of random IM babble. Sometimes the notes are quaintly personal ("I'm sorry Jeff said no, he's really ugly and looks like he's 10"), but just as often it's pure cliché of the "this band rocks hard" school. It makes CNN's news crawl look downright minimalist.

Fuse's other interactive program, IMX, runs a stock ticker beneath the videos. The concept is similar to MTV.com's Fantasy Music Tycoon game, with viewers allotted a certain amount of play money to wheel and deal. Juris explains, "IMX allows you to be a pretend record executive and to put your money on artists you think are gonna be big. Like last year, Ashanti came out of nowhere. You could hear her and decide if you want to spend a lot of money on a sure thing like Celine Dion or take a risk on Ashanti and get a 600 percent return. You get the fun of scoring points and bragging rights that I was in on her before anyone else." (It's funny that kids who routinely rip MP3s off the Internet would want to play at being music moguls, especially when that industry is nearing ruination for that very reason.) IMX takes the current obsession with weekly movie and record grosses to a new level of cynicism: Now even pre-teens understand music as a commodity rather than as the stuff that dreams are made of, the elusive thing that helps you make sense of your life and haunts your head.

Fuse and MTV2 may be fighting over who plays the most music, but the sad truth is that this is a poor time to be heralding a return to nonstop video. The imagination level of the form is at an all-time low, give or take a Radiohead or White Stripes. Most nu-metal videos focus on live performances by tattoed, goateed guys as their tattooed, goateed audience headbangs in unison. Hip-hop videos tend to be more colorful (and expensive), but the exuberant surrealism of Hype Williams is gone. All that remains is bling and butts, currently reaching its enjoyable reductio ad absurdum with Nelly and P. Diddy's "Shake Ya Tailfeather" and Chingy's "Right Thurr."

These days there's so much rump shaking, I worry that some of that ass might detach itself and whirl right off the screen. In the age of wall-to-wall goatee and booty, perhaps MTV's retreat from the music video was a sensible decision after all.


"Reel New York," an annual mini-festival of local independent short films, has only two more episodes left this season. This week (Friday night at 10 p.m. on Channel 13) features "In the Street," shot in the '40s by photographer Helen Levitt and her collaborators James Agee and Janice Loeb. In the poor quarters of the city, "unaware and unnoticed, every human being is a poet, . . . a warrior, a dancer," Levitt says as she weaves through East Harlem with her unblinking eye, watching people rub up against each other in the tumultuous, raggedy streets.

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