|Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 14, June 25 - July 1
Want My MTV...In Mandarin!
by Christopher Barden
A few things happen when I watch MTV. First, I sweat profusely. We’re talking very impressive quantities of body fluid here, expelled from my pores in big, salty droplets, running off my forehead and chin, and splattering loudly on the ground beneath me. Second, I breathe heavily, often gasping for air so badly it becomes necessary to turn up the volume on the TV set in order to hear the music, flashy MTV branding spots, ads, and important MTV "news" that affects my life in such a profound way. Third, I get a brief case of full-blown Attention Deficit Disorder and a twitching sensation in my lower-back. Fourth, I begin to suspect that I’m getting nothing culturally or intellectually useful from watching three- or four-minute randomly-edited visual pastiches set to music during which the average duration between cuts never surpasses 2.3 seconds. Last, after no more than 15 minutes, I stop watching altogether. I jump off the treadmill, take a shower, leave the gym and go home - where I experience the vague sense that I just escaped a small black hole.
And still, I want my MTV.
MTV, born 18 years ago, was yet another invention of 1980s America destined to conquer the world by the sheer virtue of its crassness and simplicity. Just 200 days from the end of the 20th century, there are few places left on the globe beyond MTV’s reach, as it promises to become the musical video operating system of the next century.
Along with Blockbuster Video, MTV is one of the more profitable purveyors of distraction owned by media goliath Viacom (VH-1, Nickelodeon, and Paramount Film Studios are all part of its empire).
The world-wide expansion of MTV as a wrecking-ball-like cultural force is old news. Mainland China, however, is a brand-new frontier, and after a slow, rocky beginning, MTV’s audio-visual assault is picking up steam.
Four years ago, after heavily saturating the eyes and ears of 'affluent young adults (25-34)’ in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore, MTV Mandarin took some baby steps to plant its big M in the PRC.
"The long-term goal is 24-hour programming," says Harry Hui, the mild-mannered, jet-set managing director of MTV Mandarin. "We look forward to bringing our passion and energy to the China market."
MTV Mandarin currently plays from one to three hours a day in China, (compared to 24 hours-a-day in Taiwan, with distribution to 98 percent of all cable-accessible homes). However, while far from reaching its goal of providing 24-hour background noise to bored teenagers, the channel already seeps into 40 million mainland homes daily via 37 cable stations, and is aggressively marketing itself via other media.
In addition to a radio show called Right Here on MTV! (Jiu Zai MTV!) which airs on 15 stations across the land, MTV recently announced a joint venture with Tricast to launch a Chinese-language MTV Asia Online featuring bilingual chat rooms, software downloads and online shopping.
MTV Networks Asia is currently advertising an MTV pager, which 'connects you to MTV,’ providing music and concert news, promotional updates, and party information. The day is not far off, I suspect, when you’ll be watching MTV on your video phone, possibly getting a traffic ticket for driving under the influence of Andy Lau.
Globalization Through "Localization"
With distribution in more than 82 countries, MTV adheres to a philosophy of 'localization.’ Says Hui, "We have local producers using local VJs speaking local dialects. Our playlist is 70 percent local, 30 percent international, except on MTV English. And the interaction with viewers via fan mail is very much locally based, which is part of our worldwide strategy. So the perspective is very much one of looking out rather than looking in."
MTV’s locally-produced shows include Tianlaicun (literally: 'natural sounds village’), aired nightly in Beijing at the tail-end of BCTV-1’s programming day, usually between 1 and 2 am; the Shanghai-based MTV English, teaching viewers English via the lyrics of international pop songs; and the upcoming Sprite Know-How, a short-segment program featuring fashion and pop culture news and interviews.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of MTV Mandarin’s presence in Mainland China is the unique ensemble of VJs that host its expanding number of locally-produced shows.
Sprite Know-How’s host, Vivian Tang, is part Manchurian, part Jewish, part Han. Her ancestor, Tang Ruowang, was a Jewish astronomer under the Qing Dynasty emperor Kang Xi who reigned from 1662-1723. When Tang Ruowang proffered a scientific estimate of the exact age of the Qing Dynasty, he was locked in prison for guessing a few years too short. After Kang Xi set him free, he married a princess and settled down. But for reasons unclear, he was again imprisoned for the remainder of his life. Following his death, Kang Xi rehabilitated the family’s partially royal status, meaning that his descendants were allowed only to marry Manchurians. (Vivian’s great grandfather, however, was also a Jewish trader from Switzerland.) Vivian is already planning for her post-VJ days. She intends to enter an MBA program in the near future, since, at 27, "I’m too old for this line of work," she laments.
Tianlaicun’s Xinjiang-born host Li Xia is a devout, pork-abstaining Muslim who got into the TV business via hotel management. After several stints with Sichuan TV, CCTV-2 and Xinjiang TV (where she wrote, produced, hosted and edited her own show), Li Xia continued her studies at the Broadcasting Institute in Beijing, then landed the MTV gig by impressing producers from New York to Singapore with her casual, fast-paced style. For those of us in Beijing (where MTV English is not yet available), Li Xia is the face of MTV.
In addition to this job she is already branching out to produce and host her own independent show, China Entertainment Report (unaffiliated with MTV), featuring entertainment news and commentary three times a week.
MTV Mandarin needn’t worry too much about its main competitor, Star TV’s Channel [V]. Given the unique ensemble of ambitious and talented VJs in their employ, MTV Mandarin’s localization philosophy might very well create its own competition and put itself out of business.
One of the main criticisms of MTV Mandarin is that their programming doesn’t seem to be in touch with the local music scene on the mainland. When I broached the subject, I discovered that MTV Mandarin might more properly be called VH-1 Mandarin.
"Musical tastes in China in our target market (ages 15-34)," says Hui, "are quite 'VH-1,’" referring to MTV’s slightly older, more mainstream sister channel. "Kids are buying music beyond just their own generation. It’s not unusual for 15- or 16-year-old kids to buy Frank Sinatra. You have a modern Chinese artist covering the music of Teresa Teng (Deng Lijun), Andy Lau doing the songs of Sam Hoi from the 1970s. We’re also finding that what is 'MTV’ overseas - the edgy, rebellious, innovative, cutting-edge stuff - eventually becomes mainstream. But it’s the inverse in China, where we find that the masses form the culture, which over time may become fringe."
Apparently, MTV Mandarin’s cultural reconnaissance teams have never heard of Underbaby, Tang Dynasty, or even Cui Jian - local bands whose inspiration is drawn from some place far away from the mainstream on MTV’s musical map .
"Therefore," Hui continues, "our programming is much more 'VH-1.’ It’s softer, a little bit more mainstream."
Chinese Identity Crisis
'I want my MTV!’ The simple cry of a spoiled child who wants his eye-candy is one of the most successful slogans ever devised, right up there with Nike’s 'Just Do It’ and Marlboro’s virile nicotine-addicted cowboy inviting would-be smokers to 'Come To Where the Flavor Is.’
MTV Mandarin’s slogan, however, is not 'wo yao wode MTV!’ But rather 'We are MTV.’ (i.e. you are not MTV. We’re the only MTV!) For one of the most brand-conscious companies in the world, MTV is experiencing a painful identity crisis in China. Few Chinese heed the fact that 'MTV’ refers to a specific company and is not just a whacky foreign term for 'music video.’
My mother-in-law from Hubei, for instance, doesn’t know a single word of English, but regularly uses 'MTV’ - em-oo-tee-wee - to indicate a generic music video.
"You can’t say that," I remind her sternly. "MTV is a trademarked brand name. It cannot be used in any language to denote 'music video,’ except among Vulcans, a super-intelligent, highly-cultured race of extraterrestrial beings who never watched music videos or any other form of TV. Calling a music video an 'MTV’ is like a calling a tissue a Kleenex or a copy a Xerox. Those are corporate fightin’ words. What you mean to say is 'yinyue dianshi’ or perhaps you could use the English term 'music video.’"
My mother-in-law develops a constipated expression, then fires back at me, "but I don’t speak English! And 'yinyue dianshi’ is just too dang long. Em-oo-tee-wee is much easier, so leave me alone."
Hui explains, "'We are MTV’ was very much just a brand-definition. This is who we are. It doesn’t have any emotional or psychological associations. So what you’ll see within the next three months is a new campaign with much more of a marketable, psychological, emotional tagline."
Honors MTV Can’t Even Give Away
In February, MTV Networks Asia saw its inaugural Chinese music awards, 'The 1999 MTV Music Honors,’ cancelled just 72 hours before its scheduled start, due to a 'series of undisclosed procedural delays.’ The show was scheduled four days before rival Asian music channel Star TV’s Channel [V] awards show in Shanghai.
On May 7, four months later, the honors show was revived, but this time as a co-production with Chinese Central Television Station, and rechristened the '1999 CCTV-MTV Music Honors.’ But make no mistake, as Hui points out, "It is not an awards show. It is an honors show whereby MTV and CCTV form a panel of experts to determine and recognize those artists that have played and made a significant contribution to Chinese music. In other words, you’re not allowed to call it an awards show, because the process of selection included no nominees or hidden ballots."
So, for a linguistic recap: It is the MTV honors show featuring 'artists’ who make music videos, NOT a music videos awards show featuring singers who make MTVs. Got it?
This time, the production went on as planned, with honors presented to Liu Huan, Na Ying, Wang Fei, Coco Lee, among other 'Canto- and Mandopop giants.’ Carlsberg Beer and Siemens sponsored the event, in line with the traditional association of alcoholic beverages and cellular phones with Chinese pop music.
But like a curse that wouldn’t quit, bad luck struck again when NATO bombed China’s Belgrade embassy the very next day, leading to the indefinite postponement of the show’s broadcast. According to Hui, CCTV 'advised’ that the airing be delayed until the situation in Yugoslavia had 'stabilized.’ So, hopefully, you can look forward to watching the ill-fated and long-awaited event on CCTV-1 and other channels, sometime before the world ends.
But What The &%@#$! Is MTV Anyway?
At the CCTV-MTV press conference, each journalist was given a cheap plastic blue watch with a funky design. Atomic rings with yellow globules encircled the trademarked MTV logo on the watch face, but only three hours were indicated: 9, 1, and 5. It seemed oddly mysterious. 9, 1, and 5. What the hell is that supposed to mean? I pondered the meaning of it, like the space explorers in Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001 who discover a strange, black monolith on the moon with the dimensions 1:3:9.
Could MTV be from outer space? Nah. If they were from outer space, they surely would have gotten approval for the February honors show. Could they have been too cheap to print the other nine hours? Nah. MTV’s first-quarter EDBITDA (earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, aka 'cash flow’) increased 29 percent on double-digit advertising sales worldwide.
Then it hit me. 9 is when you go to work. 1 is when you better get your derriere back from lunch, and 5 is when you’re free to leave. It’s the corporate clock. What other hours does one need? I solved the mystery: MTV is a corporate entity.
But what does MTV produce exactly, in exchange for all those big advertising bucks? I’ll tell you. MTV is the world’s largest, most innovative talking vanity mirror ever constructed. The camera lens is the mirror’s glass, and your eyes and ears and neural synapses are the amalgam coating against which the solipsistic gazes of the 'artists’ bounce. The truth is, you’re watching a bunch of self-absorbed people looking at themselves. So if you’re not running while you watch MTV, you should be. Or at least sweating.