If MTV's recent promotional spot announcing that it is cutting back on airing heavy-metal videos was supposed to be clear, then it was a big bomb. If it was designed to stir things up in the music and video industries, it succeeded beyond measure.
"An embarrassment" is how John David Kalodner, A&R exec at Geffen Records, described the spot. "They were running these spots where they had kids talking about how they didn't want to see heavy metal on MTV anymore, and then a voice-over said, 'So on MTV, we're playing less heavy metal.' When I saw that, my heart sank."
The 30-second spot featured testimonials from viewers who were asked what they thought of heavy metal on MTV. Among the responses:
"They all try to look like Cher."
"Man, it's great: The louder, the better."
"I'd watch more MTV if you didn't play any heavy metal."
Lee Masters, MTV's senior vice president and general manager, conceded that the spot triggered a lot of criticism from those in the record industry. "We ran that spot four times, and we have gotten more (grief) from it. Everybody and his mother saw it."
The problem with the spot, said Masters, was one of balance. "We just didn't do an effective job of balancing it. The responses were probably 3-1 negative. It's being recut to say, 'Some people love heavy metal, some people hate it. At MTV, we're trying to satisfy both of you."
The spot was designed to call attention to the fact that MTV has been playing fewer metal clips in regular rotation since late spring. That's when Masters and other MTV executives learned that, while metal fans may be voracious music consumers, they don't represent the majority of the channel's viewers.
"Late last year, we really started to increase the amount of hard rock and heavy metal on the channel," said Masters. "We'd all kind of come into our jobs at that point and we wanted to take a more active position in the record industry. One of the ways we thought we could do a better job was being more responsive to the active record consumer.
"What we found out four or five months into it--which should be no surprise--is that the people who like heavy metal really respond much faster and much more vocally than any other segment that we go after. The response we were getting from our viewers--based on letters, phone calls and research--was that we were playing too much metal.
"If we put together a channel that really appeals consistently to the heavy-metal fans, that's all we'd have. People are in one camp or the other. Nobody sits on the fence on this one. It's a very polarizing issue, and probably the single largest programming issue the channel faces: to play or not to play, and to what extent."
While MTV is cutting back on metal clips in regular rotation, Masters noted that most of the currently popular metal-based bands--Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Cinderella, Poison, and Europe--are defined as "hard rock" by MTV and are unaffected by the cutback. "Hard rock in the regular mix has a very, very important place on the channel," he said.
What about videos that cross the line between hard rock and heavy metal--a line that is said to be based on musical accessibility but probably has just as much to do with sales figures? Those clips have a weekly home--albeit not a prime-time one--on MTV's two-hour "Headbanger's Ball," which airs Saturdays from midnight to 2 a.m.
"There's always a place on the channel for really excellent rock 'n' roll that appeals to the total spectrum of our audience," said Masters. "There's always a place for the Whitesnakes and the Aerosmiths and the Europes.
"And for that matter, there will always be a place for the Metallicas and the W.A.S.P.s of the world on our metal show. Even the loudest, most abrasive, blow-torch rock 'n' roll has a place on 'Headbanger's Ball.' But in order to be in the regular mix--to be exposed to our broad spectrum of viewers--we have to have music that appeals to the broad spectrum."
MTV may have the last laugh over the furor surrounding the metal spot. Said Masters: "The next time a record company exec says 'I can't get any reaction (from consumers) when you play my clip just four times a week,' I'll say 'That's because your video doesn't stand out. Put a stronger message in there and see what happens.' "