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Why You Want Your MTV : The music video channel mixes creativity and commercialism for its on-air 'environment'

July 22, 1990|Jess Bravin

Snarling chainsaws chase a button-nosed Earth through space, a harlequin's head turns into a sardine can, the screen buzzes disturbingly, "PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME." This is station identification?

On MTV it is--and it's more than that.

"The thing that would surprise most people," says Judy McGrath, MTV's creative director and senior vice president, "is that we have an editorial viewpoint. How ideas are articulated is quite important to us."

Indeed, while endless seasons have seen NBC's peacock preen and the CBS eye stare unblinking, the creative department at MTV has turned the prosaic job of reminding viewers which channel they are watching into some of the most interesting work on television.

Squeezed between the shrieking Bon Jovi videos, grinding dance-athons and glamorous sneaker ads that fill most of MTV's 1,440 minutes each day, the promos have become a respected--if somewhat overlooked--forum for provocative art and irreverent wit.

"Most of the videos on MTV are nothing but vapid, even damaging, commercials--and that causes many intelligent viewers to write the station off," says Michael Nash, the media arts curator at the Long Beach Museum of Art. "But much of the interstitial programming (jargon for the station's house ads) has been brilliantly creative, seductive television that expands the idea of what the medium is all about."

This MTV "environment," as the network calls its on-air look, encompasses everything from claymation to performance art. Its most basic form is the 10-second station identification, which can show the network's block-letter M logo created anew out of, among other materials, flesh, spray paint, swimming pools and sandwich fixin's.

Thirty- and 60-second "image" pieces have featured rock stars reading Shakespeare and philosophizings from Malcolm Forbes. Filmmaker Spike Lee and artists Keith Haring and Robert Longo have made promos, and the station has commissioned work from animators and illustrators in Czechoslovakia, England, Holland and Hungary.

"We need to project that arty feel," says MTV Networks Chairman Tom Freston. "It's all that stands between us being a TV network and being just a video jukebox."

Others agree. Says the advertising director of a rival cable channel, "At MTV, the promos are the network. Otherwise, it's just a non-stop commercial."

Of course, the promos--produced at an annual cost of $15 million--are themselves commercials, hawking an ineffable attitude to the channel's core audience of 18- to 24-year-old viewers.

"We try to put stuff that's cool on so the audience will feel that, by extension, they're cool for watching us," explains John Payson, 28, who produced for MTV Lou Reed reciting "Macbeth" and the chronicle of Randy of the Redwoods, hippie and Presidential aspirant.

"Like perfume ads, we try to create an idea about what the product is, instead of showing you what it smells like," Payson said. "We can't exactly say, 'Watch MTV and you'll feel 30% better,' but the bottom line is to identify and sell a product."

Similar promotional strategies, which aim to portray the network as something greater than the sum of its programs, are employed at MTV's sister channels (all are owned by MTV Networks).

VH-1, aimed at 25- to 49-year-olds, is marketed as a soothing video extension of the baby boomer's lifestyle. Nickelodeon constantly tells its 2- to 15-year-old audience that it is "The only network for you," while its after-dark counterpart, Nick at Nite, uses winking, ironic promotions to make its schedule of aging sitcom reruns seem hip.

"In every case," Freston says, "we try to make the audience associate with the network first, the shows second."

Yet MTV's creative staff--a young, intellectual group more apt to quote Kafka than Madonna--believes its work is more than just hype.

"We want to make cool things, but ones which are provocative and interesting," says senior producer Pam Thomas, 27. Thomas produced the summer campaign featuring Los Angeles comedian Pauly Shore (after 30 seconds of Shore's incomprehensible surf lingo, an announcer adds "also available in English"), as well as an ambitious series called "Artist IDs."

For that campaign, Thomas sought out "people who aren't associated with MTV, but are associated with modern life," including Forbes, Jesse Jackson, filmmaker Jonathan Demme and advertising guru Jay Chiat. A new edition of the campaign, scheduled to air in August, will feature photographer Hans Neleman, model Naomi Campbell and basketball star Isiah Thomas, among others.

Producer Thomas (no relation to the Detroit Pistons guard) shot two-hour interviews in which she asked such questions as "What does power mean to you?" and "What does freedom mean to you?"--and cut them into 30-second promotions.

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