Now On Mtv: Madonna, Nirvana And Newt Gingrich

Memo to the boys on the bus: Make room for a different kind of political reporter. Her name is Tabitha Soren, and she covers the 1992 Presidential race for MTV. At the tender age of 25, Soren has already become a force in election coverage. During the Democratic and GOP conventions, she snagged interviews with heavyweights such as Senator Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) and Representative Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), who normally reserve their wisdom for the Big Three networks. "Young people are the key to the future," explains Bradley. "MTV is the way to reach them."

Has MTV become a sort of Cable News Network for the Nintendo generation? Not really. The network still devotes 85% of its airtime to videos and other music-related programs. But its election coverage shows that MTV is bent on becoming more of a full-service network for young people. In addition to news, MTV now offers everything from game shows to The Real World, a documentary that records the antics of seven young people who holed up for several weeks together in a New York City loft. "We're not just about music," says MTV Networks Chairman Thomas E. Freston. "We're about all the issues associated with pop culture."

Most people probably wouldn't consider the election pop culture. But then, MTV doesn't exactly cover it like the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour. To offer commentary at the Democratic convention, for example, the network recruited Dave Mustaine, lead singer of the heavy-metal band Megadeth. Freston says MTV's coverage, called Choose or Lose, is designed to draw 18- to 24-year-olds back into politics. "They're just as disenchanted as anybody else by sound-bite politicians," he says.

There's more than civic virtue at work here: MTV thinks a weightier image will attract sponsors that have shunned it in the past. Indeed, the network recently signed up Ford Motor Co. and American Telephone & Telegraph Co. as new advertisers. Ford sponsored a 90-minute special in which Democratic candidate Bill Clinton fielded questions from 200 young voters. MTV says its first airing of the program attracted 780,000 TV households--that's more than double its average audience.

Still, some observers are skeptical that MTV can hope to become much more than a dressed-up video channel. The Real World and other shows have drawn decent audiences, but the network's overall Nielsen ratings haven't budged for several years. Betsy Frank, director of TV information and new media at Saatchi & Saatchi Advertising, sees MTV's Choose or Lose campaign mostly as an image builder for a network that periodically offends its viewers with the messages in its music videos.

CLOUT. Other MTV watchers point out that the network changes its image almost as often as its performers. "We made a conscious decision not to grow old with our audience," says one of MTV's founders, Robert W. Pittman, now a Time Warner Inc. executive. "So we decided to change for change's sake."

About the only thing that has not changed is MTV's enormous clout in the recording industry. For example, the network's airing of a music video by Seattle rock band Nirvana helped rev up sales of its first major-label album to 5 million copies, says Nirvana's co-manager, Danny Goldberg. That made it the hottest new act of 1992. MTV would live up to its grandest ambitions if it had even a fraction of that influence on Bill Clinton's fortunes.