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MTV's Footprint Hip-Hops Around the Globe

By Catherine FosterStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Jack Epstein, Gail Chaddock, and Sheila Tefft / March 22, 1995


WHEN Music Television Video (MTV) first flash-danced onto American TV in 1981, its rapid-fire images of rock bands began a mass-media cultural revolution.

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From Michael Jackson's ''Thriller'' video in 1983 to pop star Madonna to grunge-rockers Pearl Jam, artists have influenced musical tastes, dance crazes, fashion, and idioms from Syracuse to Sacramento.

The American pop-music network has expanded into news, promotions, interviews, sex education -- even politics. Not everyone is crazy about it. The videos have been criticized for shortening attention spans, violence, sexism, raunchiness, and giving the poor alluring images of wealth.

But the channel has been undeniable successful. Now the company is taking the same concept of youth-oriented programming around the world -- as fast as pizza-size satellite dishes can go up. It's launched MTV channels in Europe, Latin America, Brazil, and Japan. Two in Asia are next.

Today MTV programming reaches 251.4 million households in 64 territories on four continents -- even dirt farmers in remote villages. Japanese students who appear on MTV Japan are shown sporting Jamaican caps with long Rastafarian braids attached.

MTV executives attribute this rapid success to their philosophy of localized programming; their version of ''think globally, act locally.''

''We go to the street, do a lot of research,'' says Tom Hunter, senior vice-president of international operations. ''Some of it is formal, carefully conducted research. We spend a lot of money, find out what they want. We also do informal research -- talk to people at concerts, in record stores, hot night clubs -- and find it just as valuable.''

Their research tells them that global youth culture is not one-size-fits-all: Brazil demands hard rock, Scotland leans toward ballads and upbeat pop. Japan wants Japanese music, but also [US] celebrity news, entertainment, and fashion.

Mr. Hunter admits that not every culture is going to feel comfortable with MTV's strobe-like barrage of writhing bodies and teens with attitude.

''The time and research that goes in helps us to understand and create [programs] sensitive to local standards on TV,'' he says. ''Some people are worried. We can't make everyone happy.''

Does MTV provide a wedge that breaks down ancient cultures? ''I don't know if I can answer that concern,'' Hunter says. ''I don't want to suggest [MTV has] no serious content, but there's more resistance to CNN. People want us wherever we go.''

He grins, and borrows from a '70s rock song. ''It's only rock 'n' roll, and we like it.''

But Sut Jhalloy, professor of communications at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and an expert on MTV, is concerned over the long-range impact of MTV and other global mass media on traditional cultures.

''I don't think it's bad by itself, a culture changing -- many are very repressive toward women -- but where does the change come from and who's in control?

''My perspective is that it's always dangerous when a culture gives up control of its cultural space to outside influences, because you cannot control them, whether they be good or bad, regardless of their intention. I worry about a global culture that is becoming driven by a few giant corporations who don't care about culture, who only care about selling.''

Beavis & Butt-head Big Hit in Brazil

ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD Fabian Alvarez, riding his mountain bike on a trail near the Corcovado (Christ statue) in Rio de Janeiro, proclaims he's an MTV buff. ''I love the video clips. But me and my friends especially like to imitate Beavis & Butt-head,'' (MTV's foul-mouthed antihero cartoon duo), he says.

''Brazil's youths want to be connected to the outside world,'' says Andre Vaisman, MTV Brasil program director. ''There's a huge hunger.''

In a nation where more families own television sets than refrigerators, MTV Brasil has found a comfy niche. Since debuting in 1990, its mix of American and Brazilian music, news spots, specials, and Beavis & Butt-head, has attracted some 9 million households in the nation's 13 largest cities, according to MTV statistics.

Fabian fits almost perfectly the profile of a typical MTV viewer. In a recent survey by the polling firm DataFolha, 27 percent are between 12 and 17, 62 percent are males, 68 percent are students, and 86 percent are from the upper and middle classes.