MTV's Niches: From Headbangers to Bible-Thumpers

A Q&A With MTV President Van Toffler

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NEW YORK ( -- MTV viewers still lamenting the deletion of "Headbangers Ball" from the late-night lineup have a reason to thrash once again: The network plans to reconnect with metal heads -- and many other niche communities -- in the very near future. This time, however, it's doing it on the web.
'We wanted to take advantage of the organic nature of the internet -- not just putting programming out, but letting people push programming back to us, remixing content we already have and letting it grow that way,' says MTV's Van Toffler.
'We wanted to take advantage of the organic nature of the internet -- not just putting programming out, but letting people push programming back to us, remixing content we already have and letting it grow that way,' says MTV's Van Toffler.

MTV Networks this week announced intentions to roll out a series of more than 20 "hyper-programmed" vertical channels targeting communities in areas of music, fashion and film, as well as personal development and even faith and spirituality. The online networks, to be launched during the first two quarters of 2007, will arrive on the heels of the success of several previously launched vertical channels for MTV, including, "Virtual Laguna Beach" and a trio of websites gay-targeted Logo network acquired earlier this year.

Van Toffler, MTV Networks' Music & Logo group president, said the websites are in various phases of development but are only the beginning of what could likely turn in to the creation of even more online outreach to underserved communities online.

"There could be 40, 50, 60 [sites] as we continue to evolve these verticals," he said. "We wanted to take advantage of the organic nature of the internet -- not just putting programming out, but letting people push programming back to us, remixing content we already have and letting it grow that way."

Mr. Toffler, 47, spoke with MediaWorks about the benefits of going vertical, the opportunities for convergence and, of course, his plans to court hard rockers.

MediaWorks: What worked with your previous vertical channels that made you decide to expand the concept to other communities?

Van Toffler: We were overwhelmed by the response to the "Best Week Ever" site as well as "Virtual Laguna Beach." These were kind of niche, passionate, smaller audiences that grew exponentially as the sites were up. They sort of instigated themselves as hyper-programmed verticals that allow the audience to create content and send it back through audience understanding, research and guts. It feels like the next evolution from broadcast TV.

With cable's programming services, we went after teens and young adults or women and men and ethnic groups. This even slices audiences thinner to get to these special-interest groups that have grown up with the internet. It gives them tools to the programs themselves and allows them to communicate with other, well, freaks -- but lovable freaks.

MediaWorks: So is the online-savvy TV viewer your target audience for these channels?

Mr. Toffler: They're the most active, passionate people around different subject matters, whether that is pop culture or classic hip-hop or alternative music. There are millions of these people. As opposed to doing broad social networking, if you add all the interest groups up, you get to the same number, but do it a different way. It's not like we're mimicking AOL or Yahoo.

And it goes without saying but I'll say it anyway -- when you target groups like this it really holds a very special appeal to advertisers who want to connect with these groups and you can connect with them in a very emotional, deep, rich way.

If you use the virtual world as an example -- "Virtual Laguna Beach" -- we showed it to a handful of advertisers and all of them went hook, line and sinker into the experiment with us. We created virtual ways for people's avatars to connect with products. And also connect to the 2-D world so you could actually buy a real product with one click. So it's new ways to have segments of the audience interact with advertisers' product.

MediaWorks: So it's a kind of 'Second Life' for the teen set?

Mr. Toffler: But that's just one example. All of the verticals are really different. Some are more programmed by us unlocking our vaults on, let's say, hip hop. Others are simply auditions where users can put themselves on the internet and actually end up on TV. Whether you're remixing a video or putting an audition of yourself up, you can end up on VH1's "60-Second Talent Show" or even MTV's "Real World." So instead of coming to a location to audition to be in "The Real World Dallas," you could put a tape up on the site and end up on show. Clearly with the generation of user-generated content and complete interactivity and nonlinear TV, you can make yourself famous overnight by posting a video of yourself.

MediaWorks: So you're kind of reinventing the way these shows are operated?

Mr. Toffler: We believe it's a kind of convergence 2.0, as opposed to just simply allowing voting. We're really connecting a digital vertical network with an actual TV network. Even though these sites are created independently of the show, obviously the idea is that there would still be some carry-over between the two.

MediaWorks: You're introducing a lot more of these channels in the first two quarters of the new year. Where do you see these going from here?

Mr. Toffler: We may do many more. The beauty of this is there's low barriers to entry. It doesn't cost much to put them up. They can live all the time and you can constantly feed them, whether it's repurposing TV, video or text-based content that our audience has expressed interest in that we don't always serve on TV. I might not be able to get to spirituality on VH1 or MTV, but we'll have a way for people who have similar feelings to connect with each other and create their own micro-communities.

But we won't do it in traditional ways. A lot of these sites like YouTube didn't exist that long ago and it happened virally. With "Virtual Laguna Beach," we didn't really promote it too much on-air, if at all. We just did it online and in a short period of time a couple hundred thousand people were active users.

MediaWorks: Seems like you're filling a void with some of these verticals. What do you see as potential competition for these sites?

Mr. Toffler: There's a bunch of niche sites out there. People don't talk about them because there's the sites like YouTube and MySpace who have tens of millions of unique visitors. But if you [can] aggregate a bunch of the small, special-interest sites around things of interest to our audiences, like skating culture and tuner culture around cars, for both the MTV and CMT audience ...

MediaWorks: Are you hoping to merge all those communities into one?

Mr. Toffler: You can add them up overall but you can allow them to live uniquely in their own niche.

We may not play aggro-metal as much as we used to in the days of "Headbanger's Ball," but it's a very fertile area for a passionate audience online. We have a very rich history in that kind of music, for better or worse, and a very active audience in some of these verticals.
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