Sitting around an elongated conference table that appears to be sculpted out of Bart Simpson's sick bag contents are Kevin Mackall, Jeffrey Keyton, Tina Exarhos, Lisa Preston and Amy Campbell. These are the taskmasters directly responsible for the branding of the MTV universe, whose cool quotient is as much-maybe even more-about its own promotions than it is about its programming. The stuff of creative dreams has been borne from their stables-from the Jukka Brothers to the more recent "Instructo-Art" campaign-so you'd think that by now, nothing could ruffle this group's collective detached cool. Today, however, they seem to have reached some kind of creative nirvana, their excitement barely containable as they discuss their latest endeavor, the relaunch of MTV2.
The sister channel to MTV was launched as an answer to the diminished music video content of the founding channel, but in its eight years running it's failed to successfully conjure the same kind of thrills upon which the mothership built its reputation. "I think the thing we were hearing back about MTV2 was that viewers were just dispassionate about it," says EVP of marketing Exarhos. "Or even worse than that, they were lukewarm, which is the worst thing you can be," adds Mackall, SVP of on-air promos. Moreover, while according to Nielsen in 2004 MTV2 had the highest concentration of 18 to 21-year-old male viewers in all of television, in the past few years competition has been breathing down its neck in the form of Fuse, which has attempted to brand itself as the sassy underdog with its promise of more music content and in-your-face ad campaigns.
"The MTV brand is always thinking about change and evolution, and unlike many of the other networks, so much of that is really inspired from the way we think about our design and packaging," explains MTV2 general manager David Cohn. "The environment of the network really comes first and the programming sort of emanates out of that look and feel." Which is why, when he decided the channel needed an overhaul, he turned to this crew with a simple directive: "Blow me away."
While a redesign for MTV, its siblings, or any channel for that matter is nothing unusual in the broadcast realm, the team responded to Cohn with not just a basic change in wallpaper. Extreme makeover is more like it. Although idents and design played a huge role in the revamp, more significantly, the group decided to take the channel itself apart, in an ambitious plan to redraw the lines between promos, ads and programming-and change television viewing as we know it.
The channel relaunched at midnight, February 7, and one of the initial rebranding steps was an entirely different logo. Gone is the letter-based icon that looked like a bastardized version of its MTV parent's. Now, there's the two-headed dog. Conceived by New York's The Night Agency, it first appeared earlier this year via mysterious virals (the2headeddog.com), print and billboard ads, but will become an omnipresent component of the branding fabric. "The logo was the kick in the ass, a mission statement," explains Mackall. "It helped to turbocharge us," adds on-air design/off-air creative SVP Keyton. "It wasn't pure decoration. It reeked of a leader of the pack type attitude, and there's nothing worse than sticking a really cool patch on stuff that isn't cool."
From there, "Lisa [Preston, VP marketing and advertising] came in and said, 'This is the programming grid-we're going to flatten it,' " recalls Mackall. This wasn't simply about switching up a program here and there. "One of the things that Tina and David challenged us with was the idea of blowing up the convention, and not considering things in :30s, :60s and 21-minute show formats. In doing that exercise, we decided that everything we do would become entertainment. We knew we were going to do tune-ins to our destinations, we knew we were going to do some [traditional] advertising, but as far as putting the grid back together, it was also about adding short-form programming, shorter than what's even considered short form programming. It might be a 15-second piece, a music piece, a gaming piece, a host of things-spokes in the wheel of what this demo is interested in."
"One of our first thoughts was trying to define what engaging the viewer means," adds Preston. "You can look at it as create a 30-minute show that they're really going to like and they'll stick around for that solid 30 minutes, or you can flatten the grid and look at all the different places in the day where you can capture them. We looked at it from the latter. We've got 24 hours where we can sprinkle things and that people could check out at different times of the day instead of sticking around for longer periods. That's when we got to the shorter programming ideas, which could be a piece of comedy, a piece of anime, things that we wouldn't necessarily blow up into a half hour show." Those short art breaks, or "sharts," will appear everywhere and anywhere, pulling inspiration from the random-access content of the web, and lending to the channel a feel not unlike a grown up Sesame Street.
Much of this new material MTV2 is producing itself or outsourcing, but they've also tapped into archives of companies like Troma Films, home to indie favorites like The Toxic Avenger. In conjunction, there's a new website that will feature the sharts and added content. There's also the requisite change of graphics, but even that is quite radical. Aside from the two-headed canine, the chyrons that ID song and artist, unchanged since the '80s, have taken the form of a bold graphic ladder that sits in the middle of the screen. Even the traditional show opens will not be the typical design splash but rather content themselves, likely relating to the programming at hand and dressed with spinning cube titles announcing the show names. The channel is also introducing a new kind of host to its lineup. Currently nicknamed "Seth," it's an androgynous virtual VJ who appears in the form of a talking skull.
Perhaps the most tantalizing aspect, however, is the advertising on the new channel. "Everything on MTV2 we're viewing now as entertainment," explains Exarhos. "Everything that traditionally falls into marketing-whether it's an ad, a promo, a show bumper or a menu, everything is now viewed in different ways, and advertising really fits into that." Adds Mackall, "Others have been doing 'advertainment'; we'll be doing 'entertisement.' The channel is fluid, the way you see it, and advertisers get an advantage to be part of that fabric." Opportunities may include anything from a house band that plays the "commercials," using videogame characters in content (similar to what's been done on the show Video Mods), and utilizing the channel as a venue for advertisers' online efforts that have made little headway on the web. "For a lot of advertisers, cool web films are part of their DNA, their brand brief, but they haven't been getting any traction anywhere, so we're offering them a platform for some of that content," notes Mackall.
Currently, the MTV2 advertising department is hammering out these particular deals that for now, won't be supplanting 30- or 60-second spots. "We'd like to become less dependent on traditional spots, that's for sure," notes GM Cohn. "But that's not even the point. The point is the environment is going to be really conducive to doing different things, so we're going to try to do our best to take advantage of it. Initially, I think if we tossed out 30-second spots in one fell swoop, we'd be doing our business a disservice."
This overhaul no doubt will have repercussions on the programming side, which isn't the traditional domain of the MTV branding heads. "It's really called into question everything we do to put together 24 hours in a day of MTV2, in a good way that's energized all the aspects of how we program music and our own productions, and where that meets the elements from Kevin, Lisa, and Jeffrey," general manager Cohn notes. To keep the content synergized, Mackall, Keyton and Preston hold weekly powwows with VP of dot-com Ben White and VP of programming at MTV2 Carol Eng. Typically, for parent channel MTV, each department head keeps to his or her respective turf, but for MTV2, they'll work together as an editorial council to ensure the channel remains on its lofty track.
With all this new content in play, what happens to the music itself? "It isn't about a huge departure from the music; it's all about a much bigger presentation of it and it will still be predominantly a music channel, " insists Exarhos. Moreover, "As the ad community might find this a creative playground, it's going to be the same with musicians," Mackall continues. "This could be a new outlet for original music content too, and we've started to get calls from artists who want to create original tunes for promos, score pieces of channel." Overall, "Historically, people have been spoon-fed music videos, but their novelty has certainly waned since 1981 and today, the videos may not necessarily stand on their own," he notes. "We don't want to be the Lite FM of music video channels. MTV2 is about sparking it up again. It's a different way of sampling. You're spoon-fed but you're given a shock."