In Depth

TV Plays Music in New Ways

From ‘Idol’ to Interactivity, Music Programming Has Come a Long Way Since MTV Launched Music Video

Since the beginning of TV, music programming has been an integral part of the success of the medium, from “Your Hit Parade” to “American Bandstand,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “Soul Train,” and finally to MTV, a network initially predicated on marketing music in short-form video bits 24/7.

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But it’s been more than two decades since MTV’s launch, and today’s music programming on TV has undergone dramatic changes. The advent of “American Idol,” the digital transformation of music across multiple platforms and the interactivity of television thanks to video-on-demand have challenged programmers to use music in new and exciting ways.

“In the ’80s, music videos were a brand-new vehicle for music and TV. Through the ’90s, MTV found that they could get better Nielsen ratings for long-form reality content than music videos,” said David Del Beccaro, president, CEO and founder of Music Choice, the world’s largest provider of commercial-free digital music via cable and satellite. Music Choice currently is available in 37 million American households, including all of the top 25 markets, and its free VOD service averages 100 million orders a month, Mr. Del Beccaro said.

Other networks like Fuse, owned by Cablevision’s MSG Media, have inherited the music-TV mantle and continue to push music-themed programming across cable pipes, the Web and mobile devices.

“MTV when it was established was a way to break talent. It was a way to market and program music on TV in a new way,” said Chris Pati, co-executive producer/director at indiMusic TV, a viewer vote-in show dedicated to new musical acts, which airs on WLNY-TV in the New York City area. “It connected the artist to the audience in a way that they didn’t have outside of the live venue. It made people get involved with the artists. That morphed into a big business in the early ’80s.”

The overwhelming success of Fox’s “American Idol” demonstrates that music programming on TV is still a powerful force for driving ad sales and creating musical product. Disney has reinvented the old Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie musical format for a teen generation with “High School Musical.”

“‘High School Musical’ was a big risk. TV hadn’t made a live-action musical with real kids since ‘Fame,’ and people here were a little nervous about what kids would think of this,” said Steven Vincent, VP of music and soundtracks for the Disney Channel. “I think music videos had helped set the table a little bit. It was the right time, but that said, we need to continue coming up with fresh ideas and not just repeat ourselves.”

The Disney Channel offers all its music programming in VOD. Stars including Hilary Duff, Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers all were spawned by Disney. “The Disney Channel makes television with music, and the soundtracks have become an incredible byproduct. The kids want the music because they loved the movie and they loved the storytelling that the music helps provide,” Mr. Vincent said.

MTV remains a key player in music TV. In September, it renamed its high-definition music channel Palladia. “It’s a bigger, more distinct name for a channel that has grown in size as well as satisfaction among music HD fans,” said Tom Calderone, VH1’s executive VP and general manager, who oversees Palladia. “We’re also reinforcing that the channel is the home for an increasingly broad range of musical styles and artists in high-def performances that can’t be seen anywhere else. We believe these changes will help our distributor partners as they continue to sell HD and strive for the best content.”

MTV’s multiplatform presence includes its newest music program. “‘Friday Night MTV’ has been about being the first to share what we see as the coolest new videos and artists with our audience,” said Dave Sirulnick, MTV executive VP of news and production. “We recognize that music fans have a number of ways to find and discover new music, but ‘FNMTV’ showed us that premiering new music on-air and combining it with an online experience to re-watch those videos and share them with friends immediately afterwards was a great combination.”

Current TV has become a hub for music programming with a cross-platform model that uses both the Internet and cable television to interact with its audience. “We aim to showcase artists and scenes in music that haven’t had a platform or creative freedom for self-expression on TV and online,” said Deanna Cohen, VP of music programming for Current TV. “Artists now come to us based on work we’ve done with artists they respect and what they’ve learned about the voracity for music of both our TV and online community.”

For example, Current’s exclusive broadcast of a Radiohead New Year’s Eve concert helped pave the way for deals with artists such as Portishead, Sigur Ros, Death Cab for Cutie and My Morning Jacket.

Singer-songwriter Elvis Costello has a music program premiering on Sundance Channel called “Spectacle: Elvis Costello With …” in which he’ll go one-on-one with legendary performers and notable newcomers. Guests will not only talk about music but perform, demonstrating the development and creation of their music and playing new, stripped-down or solo versions of some of their best-loved songs.

Music programming isn’t always where you’d expect it to be. “QVC Presents Qsessions Live,” presented by the shopping channel, is a music series specifically geared for artists with large, loyal fan bases and deep catalogs, such as Barry Manilow, James Taylor and Alabama.

“We have featured LeAnn Rimes, the Goo Goo Dolls, Bon Jovi and others that are right for the QVC brand. We have transformed the traditional music retail model into a very personal and intimate experience for shoppers,” said Rich Yoegel, director of merchandising.

“Through our signature ‘QVC Presents QSessions Live’ series, we literally bring the music to the fans through live artist performances and in-depth interviews. Viewers not only have the opportunity to hear songs performed live from the artist, but they can also purchase the new album days, and sometimes even weeks, before street date,” he added “We also always offer a bonus CD or DVD that is not available at any other retailer to make the entire experience even more special.”

“People have a lot more ways to access music content more than ever before now,” said Damon Williams, VP of programming and production for Music Choice. “Consumers are dictating their choices of what’s popular and they are discovering the next generation of superstar talent on this platform. A lot happens online, but people still see television as a premium platform. [There are] not a lot of music videos on linear TV, and I think a huge part of our success is that we’re filling that hunger and desire for visuals with music on VOD.”

The future beyond HD and VOD is likely more interactive, especially since anyone with a computer and talent can make a music video, upload it to YouTube or a Web site and try to become a star. It’s happening now.

“Independent artists are producing great music videos, some of them for very little money,” said indiMusic TV’s Mr. Pati. “That was the inception of indiMusic TV. Even if it’s only regional, it’s kind of a throwback to what MTV was when it started, but with the ‘American Idol’ voting. Fans can connect through the TV to artists they like and vote for their music videos. There’s the Independent Film Channel; indiMusic TV channel is next.

“There is a huge, worldwide market and it will always exist because artists will always find the money to create music,” he added. “The companies may not always find the right artists to promote and distribute, but the artists will get their work out there on TV.”