Can video-game characters sing? MTV2 has the answer

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Quick: What channel is MTV2 on your cable system? You don't know? Go on, ask your kids (I'll wait).

You need to find out, and to tune in, because the Viacom-owned music network is home to one of the most innovative shows on TV, a self-described (by its host) "cross-breeding bastard" of a program that is a captivating experiment in branded entertainment.

The show is "Video Mods," and it centers on original music videos that feature animated characters from popular video games dancing, singing and acting in vignettes based on hit songs. I stumbled across "Video Mods" while flipping channels on the treadmill at Chicago's Hard Rock Hotel (note the subtle smoothness with which I inserted references to a lifestyle both hip and healthy), and was immediately hooked.

"Video Mods" was introduced in September and airs on MTV2 on alternate Saturday nights (production complexities have limited the number of shows to date).

Alex Coletti, who runs programming and production at MTV2, said the show was born when Tony Shiff of Big Bear Entertainment, a producer of music videos and games, showed up one day with his laptop and announced, "OK, I've got it." "It" being a show that took video-game characters and environments and dropped them into a different context-in this case, music videos. "If video-game character is their day job, what do they do at night?" is how Coletti describes the concept.

The videos are compelling. One features characters from Electronic Arts' Sims 2 game acting out a teen fantasy based on the Fountains of Wayne song "Stacey's Mom." Other videos mix singles from Evanescence, Black Eyed Peas and the Vines with characters from Leisure Suit Larry, Jade Empire and Outlaw Golf 2.

The segments between songs feature interviews with musicians about which video games they play on their tour buses and reports on the latest installment of a popular Tony Hawk game or the introduction of a portable Nintendo system with a modem port. Video-game publishers buy up some of the commercial inventory, but there are also spots for teen-oriented slasher films and youth brands such as Cingular, Sierra Mist and Bod deodorant spray.

"Video Mods" is an ideal convergence of entertainment and marketing. The show simultaneously promotes music artists, record labels, video games and game consoles, while accumulating young male eyeballs for MTV2 to sell to sponsors. On the Web site, there are even links to buy games promoted in the videos.

Detractors might blast "Video Mods" as blatant commercialism, and some game players do exactly that on Web message boards, complaining that the promotional elements overshadow any entertainment value. Most Web postings, though, focus on the content and cutting-edge technology. "Man, these videos are sweet," wrote one contributor to an online forum for gamers. "The concept itself is really cool," wrote another, "but the execution is klunky and boring."

Coletti and Shiff downplay the commercial aspect and insist the show is driven by artistic values. "If you have a marketing agenda, the audience always sees that," said Shiff, who came up with the idea because he was impressed by the increasing visual sophistication of video games. "Here, the promotional value is kind of in the concept. The rest of it is purely creative."

Having won the trust of game publishers and artists, Coletti and Shiff are already developing spinoff concepts that would drop video-game characters into other environments-giving tours of their homes, say, or getting makeovers.

"These characters are like athletes in our audience's eyes," said Coletti. "They're stars."

Bankable stars.

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