Mtv Cranks Up The Volume In Asia

Bold marketing may help it outflank rival Rupert Murdoch

We're back! That's the message MTV Networks has been broadcasting loudly in Asia since its music channel returned to the region's airwaves in 1995. Determined to beat out Star TV's rival Channel [V], MTV has been using a mix of dogged marketing, local alliances, and just plain outrageousness to attract attention. In one short-lived print campaign last year in Taiwan, for example, a well-muscled rocker wears nothing but a towel and a television strapped to his groin. The goal, says Rose Tsou, MTV Asia's marketing director, is to convey "a little bit of an edge."

Now, MTV is claiming all these tactics have finally delivered it top share in Asia's music television market. That would be a lovely victory for MTV, a joint venture between PolyGram of Britain and Viacom Inc. of the U.S. MTV pioneered the music television format in Asia but then disappeared in 1994 following a spat with Rupert Murdoch's Star TV, the Asian satellite network that had carried MTV. But the battle is far from over. Star TV is already accusing MTV of fudging its numbers. And MTV, in need of funds to continue its fight, is said to be looking for Asian equity investors.

UNPLUGGED. MTV won't reveal the numbers, but its return to Asia has cost plenty. It has started a 24-hour service in some areas and launched Indian, Chinese, and Southeast Asian versions of its basic format. The MTV channel now reaches more than 50 million households from India to South Korea. Popular shows, such as Unplugged, showcase bands including Colonial Cousins from India and Harlem U. from Taiwan. Each week, MTV produces programs with local partners--from a hit show in Malaysia to MTV Interactive, a new Internet show in Singapore. And of course, there's the latest in imported music from the U.S. "We have market leadership now," crows MTV Asia President Frank Brown.

This is something of a symbolic victory, for now. Neither MTV nor Channel [V] will reveal revenue figures. But most advertising industry executives suspect that both are losing millions in an immature cable and satellite-TV market that generates only $300 million annually in ad revenue. Local music channels also vie for those dollars (table).

Critics also have their doubts about MTV's viewer base. Because many homes don't have satellite dishes tuned in to receive its signal, MTV has relied on partnerships with local stations to reach more homes. Sometimes, the results are less than ideal. In Hong Kong, MTV reaches 1.7 million households at some point during the week. But only 19,000 homes in the territory get the channel around the clock, while one other station broadcasts only a few hours a week. Most couch potatoes in need of a fix of, say, Spice Girls, must watch MTV at odd hours, such as 9 a.m. on Saturday.

What's more, rivals say, MTV has mushed all these odd broadcast times together to get that impressive figure of 50 million households. That confuses potential advertisers. "I need to know what I'm buying," says Kate Stephenson, client services director for media buying agency Carat Asia Pacific. She says it is much easier to plan a campaign with a 24-hour network such as Channel [V]. Others wonder whether MTV's style is a bit too much for Asia, and say Channel [V]'s softer selection of music sells better. "Youth culture is fairly new," says Deborah Armstrong, media buying director at M&C Saatchi in Hong Kong. "Channel [V] is more palatable. MTV is a lot harsher."

CENSOR. Complaints about MTV's patchwork distribution delight rivals. "There's no point in [MTV's] strategy," says Gary Davey, CEO of Star TV. But MTV makes no apologies. "In Asia," explains Gary Cunningham, MTV Asia's vice-president for network development, "you have to be open to different distribution or you [won't] have a business."

Besides, MTV says, its local partners make sure its programs appeal instead of offend. MTV has dropped Beavis & Butt-Head, the profane cartoon show, from Singapore. It gives Chinese operators 12 hours of advance time to censor anything objectionable. And marketing director Tsou, who created those television-and-groin ads, now pledges a less aggressive approach. That makes sense. Having lost its early lead in Asia, MTV cannot afford to make enemies now.