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MTV Stung by Live 8 Criticism

July 07, 2005|Geoff Boucher and Chris Gaither | Times Staff Writers

Bruised by harsh criticism and soft ratings, MTV executives Wednesday acknowledged missteps in their broadcast of last weekend's Live 8 concerts and hinted that they might retool the program and show it again.

Some kind of do-over is "not the craziest idea," said MTV Executive Vice President Van Toffler, who quipped that the Allman Brothers song "Whipping Post" best described his office's post-show morale.

Ratings released Wednesday show that the eight-hour live broadcast of Live 8 performances that aired Saturday on both MTV and sister station VH1 had an average viewership of only 2.2 million viewers -- less than the average audience for the Saturday afternoon airing of the 1999 film "Toy Story 2" on the Disney Channel.

MTV's handling of the concerts -- staged in London, Philadelphia and eight other cities -- was faulted for frequent cutaways from key musical moments to go to commercials, offstage banter or less compelling performances elsewhere.

"Knowing what I know now, I probably would have made the decision to go commercial-free," Toffler said.

Unfortunately for MTV, its performance also was juxtaposed with a widely praised showing by AOL, which offered comprehensive coverage on its music website, AOL Music.

Ken Ehrlich, who produced the Live 8 show in Philadelphia and is a veteran producer of the Grammy Awards, said the AOL event would be remembered as a defining moment in online music consumerism.

"This is a template for the future," he said. "Not to negate the importance of television, but I really think the Internet generation has come of age and the numbers have multiplied to a point of real change.... AOL opened the door here and once it's open it ain't going to close."

AOL bought the exclusive rights to the Live 8 shows for an undisclosed amount and then licensed them to MTV, XM Satellite Radio and Premiere Radio Networks. The shows also were carried across the globe by regional networks.

Kevin Wall, executive producer of Live 8, said the combined television and Internet audiences probably topped 1 billion and greatly amplified the discussion of its cause: relieving debt and poverty in beleaguered nations in Africa.

"MTV was a big part of it, not just on the air but in making the whole thing happen," Wall said. "There were disagreements creatively on some points, but you won't find anyone involved in this who has anything bad to say about MTV."

That was not the case on the Internet, where irate viewers vented loudly about MTV cameras leaving key moments such as the Pink Floyd reunion. Critics weighed in too.

But Toffler said the channel was hemmed in by decisions made in the four weeks leading up to the show, as the bill of performers was still taking shape. In retrospect, he said, MTV should not have placed such a high priority on showing so many acts, at the expense of airing complete sets by key artists.

A combined average of 2.2 million total viewers watched from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday on MTV (1.4 million) and VH1 (762,000), according to Nielsen Media Research.

Toffler said getting an estimated 18 million viewers to tune in for at least six minutes of the broadcast was "a brilliant success" for MTV and also for the "social cause."

Two hours of Live 8 moments also aired on ABC during prime time Saturday and drew an average of 2.9 million viewers. ABC's concert was the night's least-watched program on the major broadcast networks.

"It was a pretty horrible performance ... [but] it was on Saturday night, which is a throwaway night for the broadcast networks," said Brad Adgate of Horizon Media Inc.

As for AOL, its online broadcast of Live 8 was designed to promote a major strategic shift for the world's biggest Internet service provider.

As its number of subscribers declines, the Time Warner Inc. unit is vying for a bigger piece of the $10 billion that advertisers spend online annually by offering free of charge many of the services once reserved for paying members. Video and music are key components of its efforts.

Jim Bankoff, AOL's executive vice president of programming and products, said more people watched this event than any other streamed event on AOL, including the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Five million unique users visited AOL Music for its free streaming video from the concerts. At peak moments, the site was streaming 175,000 simultaneous video broadcasts, which AOL said was an Internet record.

"It was a tipping point," Bankoff said. "It's the biggest step so far and a pretty big leap forward."

Times staff writer Scott Collins contributed to this report.

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