MTV Plans New 'Flip Side' Channel
By BILL CARTER
One of the cable television's defining networks, MTV, has decided to create a
spin-off music channel called M2, focused more tightly on music and aimed at
a slightly older audience.
The channel, which MTV has quietly planned for several months, is scheduled
to start Aug. 1, the 15th anniversary of the original channel. It is intended
almost as a "flip side" of MTV, with a somewhat wider mix of music genres and
groups that is less dependent on major hits. The target audience is perhaps 23
years old, instead of 21.
"This is a channel like MTV was in 1981," said Tom Freston, the chairman of
MTV Networks. "The audience we're going for with M2 doesn't watch a lot of
MTV. They find it a bit too mainstream."
Judy McGrath, the president of MTV Music Television, a subsidiary of Viacom
Inc., said: "If you're an MTV fan, you like all the stuff that's on MTV. You
like all the junk pop cultural stuff. That's how you know who you are and what
to wear and what you're like. But there's another MTV viewer who says you
don't need to tell me what's cool. Just put it in front of me."
It will also be the first cable channel with a 24-hour link to computer
users. Through the service, which is called Intercast, viewers will be able to
see M2 on computer monitors as well as television sets. The computer version
will include a regular stream of related information -- from concert dates to
where a certain band might have had dinner the night before -- accompanying
each music video.
MTV executives say the M2 concept has been presented to a limited number of
traditional cable operators, like Comcast and Continental Cablevision, and
advertisers, like PepsiCo and MCI, and has been received with enthusiasm.
At the outset, M2 will have extremely limited distribution over cable
systems, reaching perhaps as few as 1 million homes. "I think the best place
to see us at first will be a digital satellite dish in the middle of South
Dakota," Ms. McGrath said.
Yet MTV executives express confidence that the channel will grow quickly.
"Word of mouth is what sold us 15 years ago," Freston said. At that time, the
catch-phrase, "I want my MTV," became a rallying cry for wider distribution of
the new channel.
In keeping with this reverence for the power of word of mouth, the new
channel opted for the simpler name M2, rather than MTV2. "Like MSNBC, MTV2
just seemed hard to say," Freston said, referring to the Microsoft-NBC new
Other cable service providers, of course, have created spinoffs to stand
alongside their traditional networks. The most successful are Turner
Broadcasting's Headline News, and ABC's ESPN2. MTV had previously created VH1,
but that was specifically targeted to viewers who liked older rock music.
To underscore the concept for the channel, the B side of MTV, the network's
promotional department came up with the idea of reversing the familiar MTV
logo so that it looks exactly as it would from the back, with a small number 2
inserted in one leg of the M, and the words "music television" written under
it in reverse.
The promotions were created by Abby Terkuhle, MTV's creative director, and
Nigel Cox-Hagen, the producer of on-air promotions.
MTV is looking for buzz among its core audience of young viewers, rather than
payments to cable operators, to push the channel. Many programmers with new
channels, like Fox with its news channel and even MTV itself with its new TV
Land channel, have been offering cash payments to get onto cable systems.
Freston said M2 would try a different strategy: The channel will be offered
to operators without charge. "We're not going to charge for the service for
the foreseeable future," he said. "The upside is advertising."
Actually, MTV says it will even eat the advertising revenues for a year;
expecting tiny initial audiences, it will not attempt to sell the channel to
advertisers until next summer, Freston said.
Advertisers have always supported MTV because its audience, while never large
on a regular basis, is so purely a young group that it is rarely reached as
well by any other outlet.
"We reach 40 to 45 percent of young Americans," Freston said. "That's why our
audience is so desirable to advertisers. And the audience for the new
channel, which we think will include a lot of opinion leaders, will be
MTV's economies of scale make the start-up costs for the channel extremely
low, Freston said. He said it would take very few employees to get the channel
The MTV music programming staff held meetings last week to plan the music
rotation for M2; the MTV promotion staff met to discuss plans to create an
identity for M2. Many videos used on the channel will come from MTV's enormous
Freston declined to cite a specific start-up cost for the channel, but he
said it would be easily absorbable.
"We've been growing in revenues by 20 to 30 percent for the last six years,"
MTV has become this successful partly by evolving from its original
music-video program format into a wider pop cultural meeting place for
teen-age and young-adult viewers.
MTV has received some criticism from music purists for augmenting its music
format with entertainment programming like the documentary series "The Real
World" and the game show "Singled Out." Both are extremely popular, but the
MTV executives acknowledged that true music aficionados probably are not fans.
The network's executives perceived that a new channel could be carved out of
a return of sorts to MTV's music-pure roots.
They cited the number of music sites on the Internet, 72,000 at their last
count, as evidence that there is so much passion for pure music-oriented
material that MTV does not have to cannibalize its own audience to build a new
MTV intends to do just that: put M2 in front of viewers. "We almost have a
non-marketing strategy," Freston said. The company expects to establish an
identity for the new channel by relying on its creative promotional staff,
whom which Freston called "the heart and soul of this company."
They already have plans to brand the new channel as the next cool thing,
taking the flip-side idea to such lengths as playing the MTV theme music
backwards and creating images of the underside of everything, like eggs over
"This is how we play against the big boys, against all those other networks
out there" Freston said. "We create a personality. By the time we're through,
M2 will have a personality that everybody will recognize."