MTV Lite
Watered-down station unlikely to threaten Canadian music video channels

Starting in September 2001, more than twenty years after its New York City debut, and 140 countries and 353 million households later, Canadians are finally going to be getting their MTV.

The music video station, owned by Viacom Inc., controlled by Sumner Redstone, one of the world's most powerful media barons, has long been locked out of Canadian homes by CRTC regulators. But it will be finally getting in by the back door, through a licensing arrangement with Craig Broadcast Systems Inc., which will manage the channel from its Calgary offices.

MTV's appearance in Canada is great news for 12 to 24 year-old viewers who will form its core audience, and for advertisers trying to reach those eyeballs.

MTV is probably the most important teenage brand on the planet. Youngsters have always loved music. But with videos, the Internet, and online communities, kids can now follow the stars much closer than ever before, leading to an international "MTV lifestyle," which gives companies untold marketing opportunities in everything from food, fashion cosmetics and sporting equipment.

In fact, MTV gets much of the credit (and blame) for creating a multinational, multiethnic global teen culture. Marketers often describe urban teenagers in New York and Tokyo as having more in common with each other, than with those from their parents' generation in their home countries.

 

While many details of the MTV Canada deal have yet to emerge, Canadians are unlikely to get access to all of the U.S. content. In fact, the Canadian channel has been so watered down by licensing regulations it would probably be better described as "MTV Lite."

For one, Canadian law prohibits a foreign company from owning more than 20 per cent of any cable channel that competes with a local one. That means Viacom will have at best only a minor equity stake in the operation, and thus little incentive to support it aggressively.

Worse, MTV Canada will be forced to broadcast a minimum 50% Canadian content, a surefire loser, since although Canadians seem to support content regulations, they don't actually like to watch Canadian programming all that much.

Another regulation that could stifle MTV Canada requires that only 10% of its airtime be devoted to music videos, whereas competitor Much Music can broadcast long stretches of nothing but videos. The balance MTV airtime will be filled with music inspired programming such as awards shows, concert performances, news and teen-oriented productions.

There is also a big distribution problem limiting MTV Canada's growth. The station will only be available on digital cable, which restricts its reach to homes with satellite systems, or cable subscribers with a digital adapter. Craig Broadcast Systems executives thus estimate the channel's maximum potential penetration at about 2 million homes by 2004, and are projecting only about one million subscribers by year end.

With MTV Canada's two arms tied behind its back, and its legs in cement boots, you would think that neither of Canada's youth-oriented sister music video stations, Much Music nor Musique Plus have much to worry about. And both can likely continue operating as virtual CRTC protected monopolies in their markets.

Music Plus, which broadcasts much of its programming such as Le Quiz Rock, hosted by VJ Anne-Marie Withenshaw, in French, appears to be invulnerable, because francophone Quebecers strongly favor local productions. But the stations is not taking its new competitor lying down says spokesman Richard Gamache.

"We are operating in a highly fragmented market, where even if we lose a few thousand viewers it can make a big difference, said Gamache. "But what we have created here with our downtown-Montreal street-level environment, is a programming atmosphere that is going to be hard for (them) to match."

Indeed, the fact that MTV Canada's production will originate at what Craig calls its "newly constructed state of the art digital play-out center in Calgary," is one of the puzzling aspects of all. Calgary hardly provides the hotbed of cultural and entertainment support, of Montreal and Toronto, which are home to Musique Plus and Much Music.

MTV has made very few bad moves in the past, so its can't be easily written off. But those regulatory burdens are unlikely to leave it a serious threat to Canada's domestic music channels.

 

Photo: Musique Plus execs eye MTV's Canadian debut warily. But local programming such as Buzzé-Le Quiz Rock hosted by VJ Anne-Marie Withenshaw, should provide some protection.

E-mail can be sent to Diekmeyer at: peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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