MTV: Tomorrow the World? The music video channel stakes a worldwide claim to the future. GLOBAL TELEVISION
BOSTON — IT'S a hip language of universal images and music. It's the mindless product of a decadent youth culture.
Music video - three- or four-minute rock numbers wedded to moving pictures - can produce both reactions. Whatever one thinks of it, the form is hugely popular with young people in America - largely through 24-hour cable channel MTV.
Can this controversial video service - with its free-flowing imagery and sometimes non-logical or even offensive content - find happiness amid the ancient cultures of Europe, Asia, Africa, as well as Latin America?
Absolutely, says Tom Freston, MTV's founder and president.
``We want to make MTV the world's first TV network,'' he states. MTV's style of entertainment is the world's pop-culture wave of the future, Mr. Freston feels, and he's staking an early claim by making costly global deals. MTV is already in 24 countries on five continents. In Europe it has some 7 millon subscribers in more than 12 countries.
``Last Christmas in Greece,'' Freston says, ``we broadcast to about a million homes. And beginning next month in the UK, we will be distributed direct to homes via the Astra satellite. It will be our first major DBS [direct broadcast satellite] venture outside the United States.''
But it will be a long haul. In Europe, for instance, Freston says, ``we're in a venture that will spend tens of millions of dollars before it will recoup one pound. We don't expect to be a big player there until the mid-1990s.''
Why this kind of effort for such long-deferred rewards? After all, MTV in the US already has some 44.8 million subscribers, is viewed by 23 or 24 million people a week, and is adding about 15,000 new customers every day, seven days a week.
Because the global audience is worth waiting for, answers Freston. He foresees an international generation of young MTV viewers eager to tune in.
``There's a world music today,'' he says, ``a world pop culture and sensibility among 12- to 34-year-olds. If you take 23-year-olds in Australia, Austria, and the United States, they have more in common with each other than they do with their parents. They have a viewpoint, attitude, consumer habits that have been shaped by the last 25 years of advances in technology, communications, and transportation. They wear the same clothes, drink Coca-Cola, watch movies made in France, the US, and UK.
``And as for music, there is no entertainment form that crosses boundaries more readily and successfully than popular rock and roll.''
Music video is a born world traveler, say its fans. It uses primitive metaphors unencumbered by literalism or even logic - a stimulating flow of pictures and ideas to dress up the music. For a global network, what could be more appropriate than a universal language like that?
Plenty, say many observers who are frightened by the vision. They see an American cultural Goliath crushing indigenous forms.
```This will probably be the biggest threat of cultural imperialism ever seen,'' says Garth Jowett, a cultural historian and professor of radio and television at the University of Houston.
``There is a mystique about American popular culture that has been dominant in this century and particularly since the end of World War II,'' Mr. Jowett continues. ``One only has to look at the impact of American movies. More than 60 percent of screen time throughout the world is still devoted to the showing of Hollywood product. People may resent the United States military and throw eggs at our soldiers but they love its popular forms.''
And each time a new form comes on the scene, the problem looms again, Jowett charges. After World War II it was comic books - there was a big debate in Europe about them.
``Now,'' he says ``we're dealing with American rock culture through the form of the most powerful medium we've ever known: television. They've been trying to conquer Europe for a long time with American TV. But not all of it translated. Rock videos obviously do translate. In the words of Cole Porter, you don't have to know the language - even for English speakers.''
In the past, local cultures have tended to absorb the onslaught of aggressive new entertainment forms. But this time, with the combined power of rock and video, Jowett says, ``There will be no stopping it.''
IF the reaction of a viewer like Christine Bohuom of France is any indication, MTV can indeed look forward to an enthusiastic welcome from many European viewers.
``I love American music videos,'' Miss Bohuom said while on a recent US visit. ``I would like a chance to have more of it.''
Does she have any problem with an American-produced form of entertainment invading her native land?
``No, not at all,'' she states. ``I think the videos are very good, and lots of my friends watch them all the time.''
Not surprisingly, Freston also feels the imperialism issue is an unfounded fear. He claims MTV will be working closely with people in each country:
``MTV would never work if you just took music tailored to the American audience and put it into a different country,'' he asserts. ``It requires some significant changes. Yes, the music is always rock-and-roll based, but the selections are different country to country.''
He cites MTV's experience in Japan, where it introduced a prototype for other world ventures. ``We programmed with a sensitivity to the Japanese audience,'' says Freston. ``We wove the elements of a video show together: some American, some European, some Japanese. Rock, at its roots, is an Anglo-American art form; so we try to be sure we are playing the music that is most in sync with what different countries want to hear.''
Even Jowett acknowledges international MTV could well create a desirable cross-current of talent. ``This may be an opportunity for European musicians and video people to become a part of MTV and, in turn, have a reverse kind of effect in the US,'' he suggests. ``One only has to look at the effect of British pop musicians and now, to some extent, Australian and, to a lesser extent, European in the US.''
That's exactly the view held by Joe Kotarba, a sociologist and colleague of Jowett's at the University of Houston. He teaches popular culture and is writing a book about rock listeners. ``It would be much too glib to entertain terms like `cultural imperialism,''' he asserts. ``There's a market out there. Young people around the world can't get enough. MTV is simply responding to that demand, and the content is representative of local tastes.''
Freston calls it a ``pent-up demand'' resulting from decades of government control and few outlets for this kind of entertainment. Government resistance has been a major obstacle to MTV's global efforts.
``Many countries object to the whole notion of a pan-European anything,'' Freston says, ``let alone a rock-and-roll network. The young people have been underserved, and, lo and behold, here comes a 24-hour network!''
Not so fast! says J.C. Combs, a professor of percussion and an active jazz musician at Wichita State University in Kansas. He feels MTV's global designs are less about serving youth than serving profits.
``It has very little to do with young people pounding on the table and saying, `Give us MTV,''' he states. ``Record producers have discovered another way of promoting their wares. The rock scene among the kids there features all the current music on MTV over here. They don't seem deprived that they haven't seen it on MTV.''
Even if they were clamoring for it, Mr. Combs has a problem with the form itself - specifically the scenes accompanying the music - and says he'd hate to see it spreading into other countries.
For one thing, he thinks the music and video run on two different and often nonparallel tracks. ``Music video is a wonderful tool if used properly - like Michael Jackson,'' he states. ``There a video and an artist seem to meet, with video and music going hand in hand. But often it's as if a poem you were proud of was set to music that overpowered it to the point no one even cared about the words. The visual part runs in its own direction to hype the product as much as possible. It's two different idioms.''
Jowett calls it ``an assault upon the eye'' and says, ``It's somewhat anarchistic. There's chaos involved. It's not linear; you just sit there, and images are flashed at you quickly. It's almost an avant-garde form of art.''
Combs voices another concern shared by many about music video. ``Some of them are pretty blatant and sexually explicit,'' he charges. ``I don't understand what that has to do with musicians who are trying to make music. If it's for shock value, I suppose, that gets the job done.''
They must be watching another network, according to Freston, who points to the good standards he says MTV maintains. ``We refuse hundreds of videos a year,'' he points out, ``and send them back with edits and changes. We have a responsibility, and uphold it. A lot of the complaints about MTV are from people who have always held the whole of rock music in disdain.''
Anyway, music video is just one of the formats MTV offers. ``It's the key building block,'' he says, ``but just putting it on MTV, you're not going to get much of an audience. We're trying to create a whole environment that has a certain style, look, and feel. It's information, news, fashion, comedy, movies - all the spokes of the youth culture.''