cover story Features May 5, 2019

Simon Bates on MTV’s big return to original music programming

Simon Bates on MTV’s big return to original music programming

Long live music television! For over a decade, MTV has been looking over its shoulder and into the future in a bid to remain relevant, increase market share and compete with the many digital upstarts like YouTube, Spotify and Netflix.

The network that launched in America at midnight on August 1, 1981, with the Buggles ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, was forced to face its own identity crisis. Ironically, both survived.

Many executives who lived through MTV’s “heyday” will tell you tales of how the network once broke bands and hyped hits – globally. It was a healthy business, in the nineties and early naughties. But as audiences evolved with technology and pop culture, original music programming was replaced by a new genre – reality television.

Think 16 and Pregnant, Geordie Shore, The Real World, Pimp My Ride and Punk’d. Our habitual tastes were changing, and MTV spotted that trend and ran towards it.

In Australia, MTV launched 32 years ago, first with a six-year run on the free-to-air Nine Network, airing on Saturday and Sunday nights with Richard Wilkins and Joy Smithers, and music news from Alison Drower. It’s only real competition at the time was ABC TV’s Rage and Network Ten’s now-defunct Video Hits.

But wheels will always turn full circle.

With the resurrection of Unplugged and , it definitely feels as though MTV is getting back into the music business, while others are quietly exiting from stage left. Many music-based programs that once ruled have since found themselves on the cutting-room floor, gathering dust.

Remember Video Hits, Australian Idol, Countdown, The X Factor, Hey Hey It’s Saturday and BandstandTMN even wrote about the potential demise of live music television back in June. But a lot has changed since then, for the better.

Simon Bates, who leads MTV throughout the Asia Pacific region, has spent the last year composing a brave plan to return MTV to its musical roots, to help break new acts locally and export our best to new territories. And it’s beginning to pay dividends.

“I was having conversations with labels and artists and managers about a year ago. I’m always talking to industry. I was hearing them loud and clear when I was asking the question, ‘How can MTV help?’. They’re like, ‘There’s just nothing outside of triple j, really, in Australia. We need more opportunities to connect our artists with audiences.’

“Australia is one of the biggest markets in the world for MTV. It’s always been a big, good business,” says Bates. “I mean, we definitely never stepped away from the music business or music content. We’re definitely doing a bit more at the moment.”

In June last year, confirmed that the Grammy and Emmy award-winning series would be rebooted in Australia. Then two months later, and thirteen years after it was axed Down Under, MTV revealed that it would revive TRL. Two legacy brands that Bates believes “can do a really great job of celebrating local music” and “break new music”.

“We’re really pleased with [TRL] in terms of how it has resonated with audiences, it’s demonstrating to the Australian marketplace, and fans of MTV, that we’re more than reality, and that we love and showcase music.

“It’s delivered for our commercial partners.

“We’ve definitely seen in the last year or two that there are more brands than ever that want to connect with music properties.”

Unplugged launched with performances from Gang Of Youths, who released their Melbourne session, resulting in a Top 5 album. The Rubens will follow suit this month. Their recent Unplugged gig is getting a digital and limited edition CD/DVD bundle on release on May 10.

“By making MTV Unplugged, it’s such a famous brand and franchise for us, I’ve been able to get international markets to air the shows,” says Bates. “We’ll be shooting at least four more MTV Unplugged shows this year in Australia.”

Last November plans for a new weekly urban show hosted by music journalist Christopher Kevin Au were also released, MTV Call & Response: Hip Hop. And last week MTV said it’s producing the first Australian edition of legendary hip-hop franchise YO! MTV Raps, featuring local hip-hop artists REMI, Carmouflage Rose, Tasman Keith, Okenyo, Kobie Dee, Sophiegrophy and Shadow.

“Like TRL and Yo! MTV Raps, you can see the theme around some of our legacy brands, and it’s kind of a theme more broadly in television if you look around,” says Bates. “Lots of TV networks and film studios are looking into their archives and thinking, ‘How much intellectual property is there? Is there value in bringing that back?’

“In a really busy media environment, it just kind of makes sense. We’re really lucky at MTV in that our locker room is full of gold.”

But perhaps the most intriguing announcement arrived on the weekend when US-based MTV and Viacom unveiled a new “Osbournes-style reality show” starring Jess and Lisa Origliasso of The Veronicas fame. With the working title Jess & Lisa: The Veronicas, MTV will produce the show locally and broadcast the series in over 180 territories later in the year.

“Each market is different in what they want from MTV, and the extent to which we’re local or global, which is why it’s important that we’ve got local programming teams and people on the ground.

“Even for the bigger artists, helping them break internationally is our challenge. How can MTV play a role in that?

“Streaming is obviously incredible, and it’s changed the industry, but it’s still really tough for Australian artists to break outside of Australia. There’s only really a handful of recent examples of that.”

The good news is that MTV is officially back in the music business, ready to break more bands and hype more hits. And record labels couldn’t be more pleased.

Long live music television!

Related articles