That Argentina is the world's third-biggest cable-television consumer seemed enough proof to ensure a sweeping success for MTV Latino when it arrived here in 1992. But today, the channel's Miami-based administrators for Latin America are struggling to reach even half the ratings of an unexpected competitor in Argentina: Much Music, a Canadian music channel.
"MTV is like McDonald's, and we are like a good-value local restaurant," explains Ralph Haiek, local president of Much Music. He brought it to Argentina, also in 1992, under a licensing agreement.
As Mr. Haiek describes how the channel's local approach has warded off the pan-regionalism and scale economics of America's most powerful youth media machine, the evidence mingles around him. His glass office is slapped in the middle of the channel's studio, where filming chaos carries on and 200 young people drop in every day to visit off the street.
Much Music's store-front studio on one of Buenos Aires' popular avenues is where local and international groups play live, where interviews with rock stars are recorded, and where visits to local gigs are edited. The studio's informal, street-friendly style - more akin to a youth club than to a technical command center - is in tune with the tastes of local youth culture.
"Our staff is made up of 50 young Argentines," Haiek says. That fact resonates with young viewers whose initiatives have often been frustrated by either a repressive government or a work culture rife with nepotism.
The local production is balanced by international material from the head offices. Toronto sees little need to interfere with the product, backed by 12 major sponsors.
MTV, meanwhile, has been criticized here for subjecting Argentine viewers, traditionally proud of their own music, to "Mexican" tastes. Argentines, strongly influenced by Europe, hardly like to be associated with neighboring nations, let alone northern Latinos. MTV responded by clinching Argentine artists for its unplugged sessions, contracting Argentine supermodel Valeria Mazza for Fashion-MTV, and doing Argentina "specials" like Ski-MTV.
MTV Latino President Tom Hunter is confident that his channel will not have to change its approach further. "MTV is by far the best looking channel," he claims.
But, confident of his formula, Haiek chuckles, "I think it's great that MTV has come.... Anything to add to the cable-television boom in Argentina is good news for us."