The spread of digital channels and the rise of online platforms have given fans greater opportunities to follow their favourite bands or discover new music, but those same forces require broadcasters, record labels and advertisers to fight harder to gain exposure.
“The media has fragmented giving people a huge range of choice but, to reach the audience on its own terms, programming has to be marketed or delivered cross-platform and with fresh presentations or new formats,” explains MTV's senior vice president, production and music, Richard Godfrey.
Perhaps the world's best known niche channel, MTV, has seen its market share erode over the past five years (from 53% to 43% of total UK music TV viewing) with the introduction of rivals such as Box TV's Kerrang! and Kiss TV.
It has managed to counter this by spawning half a dozen brands of its own, including MTV base and TMF, fighting for space among 23 other music TV channels on Sky's EPG.
“Our ratings did decline with the increase in competition but our performance is now building up as a result of stronger scheduling and a commitment to more content,” claims Godfrey. “Faced with a paralysis of choice, consumers want a trusted brand to act as a filter for good music and that is MTV's core strength.”
The audience for most digital lifestyle and video playlist channels is small - some achieving a few thousand viewers - yet the cumulative media value of repeat transmissions can be significant.
“Music programming tends to get repeated to death, but this can work to its advantage,” says Malcolm Gerrie, Whizzkid Entertainment chief executive. Its production, The Nokia Green Room, airs on C4's T4 and also on 4Music “sometimes racking up 10 transmissions in a two-week period”, he notes. Regular repeats enable the show to rack up more substantial audiences.
The strength of the music genre, he suggests, is that it is an ideal vehicle for sponsors looking to associate brands with youth audiences. At Initial in 1998, Gerrie helped pioneer advertiser-funded programming, producing four seasons of the Pepsi Chart Show for Five.
Advertiser funding“As one of the first examples of primetime branded content, it was seen as
a freak,” he says. “Now that the traditional commercial TV model is imploding and budgets are being slashed, the role of the brand within the equity of the show is hugely important. Broadcasters are desperate for long-running ad-funded series.”
Finance, therefore, needs to be tapped from multiple sources including record label and sponsorship. “Producing for TV is usually not enough on its own to tick all the boxes,” says Eyeworks director of branded content Paul Day. “For any branded proposition, we look at multiplatform.”
Eyeworks produces C4's Transmission for T-Mobile, which produced exclusive content on Bebo during its last series and will include expanded mobile content and alliances with other online sites in the future. “What began as a Friday night show is now part of a multimedia campaign,” says Day. “Our relationship with Bebo is as important as our relationship with C4.”
Branded content is key to C4's music strategy, according to head of music Neil McCallum. Without it, last year's launch on Freeview of the C4 and Box TV-owned music station, 4Music (previously The Hits), wouldn't have been viable.
“Branded content has grown considerably over the past three years allowing us to extend our output,” he says. Transmission, Vodafone Live Music Awards and The Shockwaves Album Chart Show are among programmes “we would have been unable to produce without additional funding”.
Branded content has its own issues, warns McCallum. “There's a real danger of diluting a great idea when working with so many parties but, ultimately, a record label or brands' needs are very similar to ours, which is to give an audience greater points of access to programming.”
Music is particularly important to broadcasters because it appeals to the prized 16- to 24-year-old audience - a group that broadcasters have always struggled to pin down - which is the most susceptible to drift from TV to other media.
“It's very hard to find mass audiences for music on TV because it is so subject to individual taste - you alienate 90% of an audience if you play the wrong song,” observes Paul Bennun, strategy director at producer Somethin' Else. “Online, the audience is much more self-selecting. If you can build a property with a strong editorial voice and exclusive content, you will find an engaged audience.”
Somethin' Else funds and produces The Black Room Sessions - a monthly live music show streamed online - although its sponsor backed out at the onset of recession.
Belatedly, by its own admission, MTV UK revamped its website last year and, as a result, recorded a near 100% increase in visitors. It also streamed 50 million videos, up more than 200% on 2007. “Two years ago our website was slightly embarrassing, but we've now turned it around,” says Godfrey. New initiative MTV Push is intended to promote breakthrough talent using video and specially produced content for web and mobile.
Other online experiments include MSN's live music show Xclusives and The Secret World of Sam King, a web-drama distributed on Bebo, produced by indie Monkey Kingdom and funded by Universal Music, whose artists it features.
“The Secret World of Sam King is about having a direct relationship with the consumer and interactivity is a huge part of that,” explains Iain Funnell of Universal Music's TV production outfit Globe Productions. “Sam is a one-man record label, so asking viewers to help him talent scout around the country is a perfect fit.”
Whizzkid's online division Tough Cookie is lining up So Syd, a blog-based show in the Katemodern mould and starring teenage singer Sydney Rae White. “We're attempting to replicate the S Club 7 formula,” says Gerrie of the pop brand he helped build. “The model is to find an online distributor, a record label, potentially a broadcaster and a sponsor to make sure the deal doesn't compromise the show editorially and that plays to everyone's strengths.”
As influential as the internet is proving to be, broadcast still remains the priority for record companies. “It's essential to engage online but our focus is on trying to get our artists into the peak schedule,” says Funnell.
“There's still a kudos associated with getting a show on TV that you don't get online or with a mobile relationship,” agrees Day. “Transmission feels like a big event with an immediacy that is still massively important.”
According to 3DD chief executive Dominic Saville, filmed music will always target the youth audience.
“As the younger demographic increasingly use the internet, TV production has stepped up by deploying some of the visual techniques used when producing high-impact promos.”
The Album Chart Show, for example, is shot in HD and distributed internationally as London Live. “YouTube and other websites tend to provide a more random and low-quality experience, so television still leads in the quality and marketing stakes,” adds Saville.
There's still great demand for music programming on TV as the summer festival coverage of Glastonbury or V Festival and hugely successful formats such as The X Factor and Pop Idol have demonstrated.
“You can't beat the more traditional approaches,” says Godfrey, who is helping roll out weekly concert performance MTV Worldstage. “You need to communicate the excitement of being live by using fresh production techniques. At the same time, some fans don't like over-complicated presentation and for them a stripped down performance is preferable.”
With albums selling in smaller quantities, there is a greater focus on live performance and related ticket and merchandise income, argues Saville. “This benefits music programming because artists have to be great live performers to be really successful, which in turn means more exciting music television,” he says. “Broadcast is a vital part of the music machinery based around album releases and tours where a music television
producer and distributor still have a key role to play.”
4Music and MTV ratings
C4's top rating shows
C4's The Album Chart Show averaged 227,000 viewers and 3.98% share per episode for series 4.
Series 4 of T-Mobile Transmission averaged 164,000 viewers. Its T4 repeats averaged 125,000 viewers.
Shorter episodes of 10-20 mins titled T-Mobile Transmission: Collaborations attracted 134,000 viewers.
MTV's top rating shows
The Hills series average 97,100.
Kerry Katona - Crazy in Love series averaged 70,300 viewers - 2008 MTV Europe Music Awards had 242,100 viewers
Source: BARB, Network, Individuals.
All figures Consolidated.