MAN: And the Video of the Year goes to Lady Marmalade, Christine Aguilera [sp?] [...?...]. [CHEERS, WHISTLES, MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD: On Thursday night MTV handed its Video of the Year Award to a song first recorded 26 years ago, featured in a movie set a hundred years ago, populated by characters employed in the world's oldest profession. But MTV isn't necessarily fixated on the past, it is changing, and what once set the network apart - videos - has been de-emphasized in favor of programming one might find on traditional networks. But the last people to realize this change has occurred have been the recording artists themselves. Joining me now to discuss the phenomenon is James Surowiecki, columnist for the New Yorker Magazine. Welcome to On the Media!
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: MTV was built on the premise of getting promotional videos from record companies for free and playing them for a young audience eager to see the same numbers again and again and again. But now MTV's reliance on videos has greatly diminished. What's going on?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: This actually dates back-- a while, which is that MTV realized that even though people love videos and even though MTV's identity is completely wrapped up with showing videos, people actually don't like to sit and just watch videos -- and that makes sense. I mean you know mostly when you watch videos you'll, you know, you'll switch. If you like the song you'll watch it; if not, you'll switch to something else -- which is good if you're watching, but it's bad if you're an advertiser. So MTV realized that if it was going to be able to grow and continue to, you know, take in adver--ad revenue, it needed to play fewer videos and it needed to make shows that people would, would watch.
BOB GARFIELD: So an increasing supply of videos is meeting a diminishing demand for them.
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Exactly.
BOB GARFIELD: Something's got to give. What's giving?
JAMES SUROWIECKI:Well the only thing that really seems to be giving is-- the record labels are, you know, spending a lot of money trying to market records-- the videos for which never get played on the air. The labels - the record labels are basically locked in to the idea that MTV is the place to break new acts --which it is for some acts, but for a lot of people you know MTV is, is just this wasteland, cause their videos are never going to get on.
BOB GARFIELD: Do you have any idea what percentage of videos that are made find their way on to MTV's air?
JAMES SUROWIECKI:It's hard to say just because there's - you know - there is no institute that tracks this kind of data, but the estimates are that somewhere between say 50 and 60 percent of the videos that get made never actually make it on to MTV-proper.
BOB GARFIELD: Wow. Do you know what they're paying to film a video these days?
JAMES SUROWIECKI:The average video, you know, with a major label and of course the major labels put out something like 85 percent of the music basically, cost somewhere around a quarter of a million dollars and-- that's for a pretty normal, you know, simple video. I mean one of the paradoxes of this also is that the harder it is to get on MTV the more money the labels spend on these videos in order to get on MTV, cause the idea is to have a chance you have to kind of do something special, basically. So MTV is really in the perfect position. I mean it's - you know it, it basically has this endless supply of high-quality videos, and it only has to play you know the percentage of them that it wants.
BOB GARFIELD:Well on the face of it, it sounds like a very bad bet for the record industry; they would seem to do better by getting in the car, going to Vegas and putting 250,000 dollars on--black. Do they have to take this gamble? Can you have a hit record without a video to accompany it?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Right. Well that's an interesting question. The argument tends to be that you, you can actually; that there are a lot of people within the industry who think that the idea that a video is essential is sort of over-rated, and that you know word of mouth and radio play are still really the key factors.
The problem is that word of mouth and, and even radio play are sort of harder -- the impact of those are a li-- is a little bit harder to measure.
But there is one other problem in all this which is that the artists themselves want to be on MTV, and not necessarily for economically rational reasons, you know. It's just that being on MTV is this - you know it's a crucial part of what it means to be a star now, and-- it's, it, it's hard to convince artists I think to, to give that up.
BOB GARFIELD: How much do the artists want to have videos?
JAMES SUROWIECKI:The artists really want to have videos, and it's typically in a - in a typical record contract, the label will commit to making at least one video, and if it's a big artist then they'll pretty much commit to making videos for, for all the singles.
And so as a result, the label ends up committing to a video in advance -- you know the artist definitely wants that video -- time comes around - even if the label says to itself, you know what? - this video's just going to be a waste of money - it's sort of contractually committed.
So-- you know the sensible thing for them to do is to cut back significantly on the number of videos they make.
BOB GARFIELD:Apart from the ratings advantage of showing programs like The Real World, for example, as opposed to just a string of music videos, is there some advantage to MTV to actually limit the number of videos in order to make their -the time slots allotted to them more valuable? You know, like OPEC cutting back on oil production?
JAMES SUROWIECKI: It, it's not exactly clear that MTV -- I mean when you talk to people at MTV no one says you know we consciously decided to do this as a way of maximizing our power over the record industry, but certainly that has been one effect.
The other thing is, I have this strange theory that I think MTV II was created in part to convince the record labels that they should continue making videos. Cause MTV is only in that great position of power if the record companies keep making all these videos.
BOB GARFIELD: All right! James Surowiecki, thank you very much!
JAMES SUROWIECKI: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD:James Surowiecki is a columnist for the New Yorker. [MUSIC: LADY MARMALADE PLAYS] CHRISTINE AGUILERA: Hi mom. Thank you to everybody that thought we'd make good whores. Appreciate it. Thank you. We're taking the Moo-Man [sp?] home. [THEME MUSIC]
BOB GARFIELD:That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Janeen Price, Katya Rogers and Melissa Sanford; engineered by Scott Strickland, and edited-- by Brooke. We had help from Rex Doane and the Lou Rawls [sp?] of National Public Radio, Mr. Brian Naylor [sp?]. Our web master is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Mike Pesca is our producer at large; Arun Rath our senior producer and Dean Cappello our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. You can listen to the program and get free transcripts at onthemedia.org and e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is On the Media if you haven't guessed by now from National Public Radio. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And for On the Media, I'm Bob Garfield of On the Media. 58:30 FUNDING CREDITS