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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- MTV Networks is re-amplifying its "Unplugged" franchise.
One of MTV's seminal music programs of the 1990s, "Unplugged" has been revived in recent years as "Unplugged 2.0" for artists such as Lauryn Hill and Linkin Park, and most recently last year as an online concert series for Katy Perry, Adele, Vampire Weekend and other emerging acts.
This time around, "Unplugged" is a multiplatform branded-entertainment vehicle for Starburst, which will sponsor the concert series' revival across cable siblings MTV, VH1 and CMT and their respective websites, as well as use the series as branded content for MTVMusic.com and VH1 Mobile.
A variety of bands spanning different musical genres will perform on their corresponding network, starting with Adam Lambert on VH1 on March 10, Phoenix on MTV and Reba McEntire on CMT.
"The franchise has always been purely wonderful in that it shows musicians doing what they do best. So our thinking was, 'Why not do it across different genres of music?'" said Van Toffler, president of MTVN's Music, Films and Logo Group.
Each "Unplugged" performance will feature an unexpected cover song or other contradictory musical moment to sync up with Starburst's tagline "It's a juicy contradiction." Starburst's media agency, MediaVest, part of Publicis Groupe, helped create the sponsorship, which will last through August across eight episodes.
"Unplugged" has come a long way from its heyday as a place where artists as diverse as Rod Stewart, Mariah Carey, Nirvana, LL Cool J, and Jethro Tull could play electronic-free sets. It's also become one of the most-copied musical franchises ever, kickstarting a trend followed by everyone from AOL ("Sessions at AOL") to Clear Channel ("Stripped") to iTunes ("iTunes Originals.")
Ad Age spoke with Mr. Toffler for more insight on "Unplugged"'s rich history at MTV and his wish list of performers for the latest go-round -- could Lady Gaga be next?
Ad Age: "Unplugged" has seen many iterations in the past. Why was now the right time to bring it back again?
Mr. Toffler: I think a lot of great musicians have the chops to do "Unplugged," so we wanted to bring it back across all genres. That's why you'll see Reba McEntire for CMT, people like Adam Lambert and The Script for VH1 and Phoenix for MTV.
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What happened with "Unplugged" when we did it in the '80s and '90s is it made really big artists nervous. There was a lot of pressure because there were huge albums that arose from "Unplugged," including what I think was Eric Clapton's best-selling album ever. We wanted to bring it back to their roots of bands playing acoustic instruments and showing their musicianship.
Ad Age: This is the first time "Unplugged" has had an integrated sponsor. Why was having an advertiser such as Starburst essential to bringing the show back this time around?
Mr. Toffler: We like sponsors -- selling ads is key to our business. [laughs] It was definitely an integral piece of it, but again it's really about how at our core, we're music brands and "Unplugged" is a great way for musicians and bands to enter these brands.
All these new platforms weren't available when we first launched "Unplugged." Now we can run 60 to 90 minutes worth of songs online, run a portion of that on television -- there's a number of outlets for these songs to be exposed.
Ad Age: There's been a number of "Unplugged" copycats in recent years offering the same format to artists. How will you make sure MTV's performances have an exclusivity or uniqueness to them?
Mr. Toffler: A lot of artists have inserted acoustic segments to their live shows, so that made it less special for us to do "Unplugged" for awhile. But I think the audience really demanded to see musicians in these days as opposed to something scripted like a video is. They want to see the artist sing live, play live, and I would guess see really surprising moments like when Paul McCartney forgot the lyrics to a Beatles song. That's what "Unplugged" does as well is provide a level of intimacy you don't get in stadiums. We begged Michael Jackson to do one many years ago, which unfortunately he couldn't do that when we wanted to.
Ad Age: So who would be on your dream list of performers now, if timing wasn't an issue?
Mr. Toffler: I would love to see Prince do one, I think Gaga's got the chops to do one and people would love to see her just sit down at a piano and sing her songs. I've always wanted to have U2 do one.