2017 BET Awards

Forever Young

When MTV: Music Television debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, many media experts felt it was doomed from the start. It was an experimental format trying to get established on an experimental platform -- cable T

When MTV: Music Television debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, many media experts felt it was doomed from the start. It was an experimental format trying to get established on an experimental platform -- cable TV. But the idea of a 24-hour music video channel would never have worked on traditional broadcast TV at the time.

Only in the niche environment of cable could such an idea take root. And, boy, did it ever. MTV programming is now found in more than 442 million households in 167 territories worldwide, including 88 million households in the United States, according to MTV Networks. One of its most popular programming events, the MTV Video Music Awards, is set for Aug. 31 in New York.

On the way to becoming an omnipresent youth brand, MTV exemplified the promise of cable TV. "I want my MTV" became not only a call to action for cable operators, but a cultural catchphrase. Along with HBO and a handful of other early cable visionaries, MTV helped legitimize the then-questionable model of pay TV and proved the axiom that has become the rallying cry for all new delivery platforms since: Content is king.

Today, 25 years after it aired its first music video ("Video Killed the Radio Star" by the Buggles), MTV finds itself in a much different business environment.

No longer the upstart challenger to the big media status quo, it is itself a media giant targeted by newer challengers in the digital age. Internet destinations like MySpace, YouTube and even Yahoo are vying for a piece of MTV's once-defining content -- music videos -- as well as competing to be the next purveyor of cool, youth-driven pop culture upon which MTV built its empire.

For MTV president Christina Norman, who took the helm of the organization in May, the challenge of navigating the behemoth that MTV has become through the rapidly changing market is no easy task.

MTV must make the transition to the Internet and mobile space while competing against content providers built from the ground up for these same platforms. Like the other mature media giants, MTV's greatest challenge is to determine exactly what it wants to be in this new media era.

"That's true not just for us, but for everyone," Norman says. "All the media companies now are having discussions about things that never would have been fathomed two, three years ago.

"I think we're finally moving beyond the phase where everyone was afraid to move because they were afraid of making the wrong move, and instead they're just trying things to see what happens," Norman adds.

Just as MTV expanded its programming beyond videos into reality TV, news and other niche markets, it also has been active in establishing a presence on new digital platforms.

MTV.com went live in June 1996, offering the traditional MTV mix of music news, photos and video along with other pop culture information and content.

Then came MTV Overdrive, a broadband Internet video-on-demand service that more closely matches the company's on-air presence with more robust video capabilities. Since it launched in April 2005, Overdrive has become its flagship online destination, with more than 1.5 million video streams per day. According to Norman, the biggest challenge is determining how to organize all this content into an easily searchable site.

"The happy problem of Overdrive is that there's such an incredible wealth of content, how do you fan it out enough to let everybody know what the possibilities are?" she says. "We're constantly evolving it and changing it based on the audience and what content is available.

With the 2005 Video Music Awards, MTV began experimenting with what Norman calls an "extended viewing experience" that she is now applying to other MTV shows. During the VMAs, Overdrive viewers were able to watch behind-the-scenes footage during commercial breaks and otherwise interact more broadly with the event.

Norman says the trial was a huge success, so much so that MTV is applying the same experience to such shows as "TRL."

"The host or guest can let their hair down a little bit during the breaks when the cameras aren't on, and we're able to capture that for Overdrive. There's a little bit more of a relaxed nature," she says. "The point is you can just toggle between your TV and computer the whole time while the show is on. All the great stuff that happens while videos are on or during commercial breaks that the audience at home doesn't see, they'll now have access to that stuff."

For the 2006 VMAs, MTV is holding a contest that will give winners the chance to film their experiences at the awards show, which Overdrive will air as well. This strategy of using the Internet to give viewers more access to their content extends to MTV's university feed, mtvU. The channel normally is available only on college networks.

Concerned that off-campus students could not access the programming, MTV began broadcasting it over the Internet, dubbed mtv Uber. Norman says she may consider airing other MTV niche programming over the Internet well, such as MTV World.

Wireless is a particularly important medium for MTV, given the company's focus on young adults. When ringtones began their upward arc, MTV got in on the game through a partnership with the teen-focused Virgin Mobile, offering exclusive ringtones unavailable to other carriers. It even commissioned hip-hop producer Timbaland to produce a suite of original ringtones.

The company continues its mobile presence beyond music, striking deals to bring original short-form programming—such as animation and live-action video—to mobile phones.

The mobile strategy has expanded with Flux, a mobile content service that takes different forms in different countries. In the United States, Flux is MTV's direct-to-consumer mobile content storefront, selling ringtones, graphics and so on. In Asia, Flux is a mobile content service that features original animated clips, videos and other services. In Europe, it is a TV channel that contains user-generated videoclips and messages, much of it captured with multimedia mobile phones.

MTV is exploring digital downloads with the test launch of Urge, a subscription music service that is deeply integrated into the next version of Microsoft's Windows Media Player.

With such a strong competitor as Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store dominating the digital retail market, the Urge effort is hardly destined for smooth sailing. And it's not alone. MTV is also lagging in the social networking boom.

MTV parent company Viacom in 2005 lost out on the bidding for MySpace to News Corp. Since the acquisition, MySpace's usage has quadrupled, and only the video-sharing site YouTube has come anywhere close to matching its success.

As a company that built its brand as a meeting place for young adults, pop culture and music, MTV will not meekly surrender that digital turf to MySpace and YouTube. Norman says a number of community-based initiatives are under way.

"We know we want to be in social networking, and we know that's where our audience is," she says. "But it's important for us to approach this in the right way and not have another ëme too' application. Whatever we have to do must add value to the audience."

One strategy is to extend many of MTV's social outreach efforts like Rock the Vote, sexual health campaigns and town hall-style meetings with politicians into an online community.

"That's something our audience expects from us," Norman says. "When there's an issue or a cause that impacts them, MTV should be the place where they hear about what they can do and what it means for them, and how to connect them with other people that share their passion."

On the entertainment front, MTV is readying a number of services that let users post their own content, as well as interact with the content being delivered on all MTV platforms. Norman says to expect specifics "in the next couple of months."

Social networking aside, MTV's greatest strength is its programming. It has vast volumes of not only music videos, but also original series' including "The Real World," "Beavis and Butt-Head" and "Punk'd."

Content, the company understands, is still king. Yet the challenge and the opportunity in an age with multiple delivery platforms is to determine which content works best via what channel.

"A lot of us are learning how to create to the platform rather than just spreading content across platforms," Norman says. "It gets harder and harder the bigger you get. You'd love for everything to be interconnected in some way or another, but that may not always be the right thing for that channel or that audience. For us it's always about making it addictive for the audience and not just shoving another [program] down my throat."

Unlike other big media brands facing this same challenge, MTV can draw upon a long history of developing nontraditional programming even in the cable era.

From the very beginning, MTV experimented with short-form TV programming that it inserted into bite-sized clips between music videos for the youth market it was targeting. This experience, Norman says, positions MTV well for the multiformat world of the future.

"I firmly believe that what makes us the best to deliver this kind of content on these new platforms than any other media company out there is 20 years of MTV News and 25 years of an incredible MTV promotions department," she says.

"Those guys have spent their careers making short-form TV. Knowing how to tell a great story in three minutes has been an incredibly useful skill in figuring out what works on mobile and what works on Overdrive."

The model, she says, remains largely the same regardless of platform.

"You start with an idea, you develop it, produce it, test it, nurture it, identify who you're making it for, ID the best person to make it and so on," she continues. "We're looking at this for all platforms. Whether it's finding some crazy animator who's got something amazing we want to highlight on Overdrive or some great long-form idea that should be on MTV2. We try to bring that same discipline to all our platforms and let the creative expression and freedom run as they should."

With more than five cable TV channels, four Internet destinations, various mobile initiatives, movies and so on, one would think the MTV brand could get diluted—a casualty of the multidimensional world in which we now live.

But just as it was in the beginning, when MTV had only one cable channel to call home, content still rules. As long as MTV sticks to its original mission in choosing what content to deliver, Norman says, the brand will only grow.

"Everything at MTV is rooted in the same sensibility—celebrating music, celebrating young people and connecting all those things together," she says. "We're fortunate to have leadership on all those platforms that embrace that mission. It's about surrounding yourself with the right people with the passion for the audience, the platforms and the music. It's such a great time of change in this industry, and to have a front row seat is exciting.