MTV Networks Company

views updated

MTV Networks Company

1515 Broadway
New York, New York 10036
Telephone: (212) 258-8000
Fax: (212) 258-6175
Web site:



In the 1990s and early 2000s MTV Networks Company's MTV was the leading trendsetter among American youth. Though initially it solely aired music videos, MTV had evolved into a network focused on the projection of a stylish, youth-oriented brand identity rather than on the exclusive promotion of music. The tone of its programming was established primarily by a stable of popular reality shows. Additionally, part of the network's branding had always been accomplished through distinctive on-air promotional material that typically appeared between programs. Starting with the universally famous "I want my MTV" slogan and continuing through the bizarre, critically lauded "Jukka Brothers" campaign, MTV's commitment to unconventional branding work was already well established by 2003, when the network became aware of an independent art project then running in art galleries and on the Internet. The project, called "Instructoart," was created by Matt Vescovo, an advertising freelancer and graphic artist, and it used the format of airline safety pamphlets to offer facetious visual instruction in a variety of mundane daily rituals and behaviors.

MTV contracted Vescovo to produce animated versions of his "Instructoart" illustrations for an on-air station-identification campaign named "Watch and Learn." Using a minimal budget, Vescovo worked with design shop Hornet to create an initial series of eight spots. All were under 20 seconds long and premiered during the August 2003 MTV Video Music Awards. The spots, which adopted Vescovo's "Instructoart" concept exactly, enlightened viewers about such matters as the three-second rule regarding dropped food and the relative sex appeal of a range of musical instruments. They used minimal movement and music. With their quietness, the "Watch and Learn" spots stood out from MTV's boisterous programming, and the offbeat social commentary they offered meshed well with the network's desire to maintain a unique, unpredictable image.

"Watch and Learn" won numerous awards in 2004, and MTV commissioned another series of the spots that began running that year. Vescovo likewise extended the "Instructoart" franchise with further art-gallery shows and with book versions of the pieces. MTV remained one of the world's most distinct and envied consumer brands as well as the top forum for advertisers seeking to connect with America's youth.


MTV's name, Music Television, was a literal description of its programming upon its launch in 1981 and for its first several years on the air. MTV was a 24-hour music video network, the world's first, with blocks of videos hosted by so-called VJs (video jockeys) but with minimal original content otherwise. The format caught on quickly, but as the network matured, it increasingly sought to offer long-form programming. Such shows, which kept audiences' attention for a half-hour or more, appealed to advertisers, whereas three- and four-minute videos made it difficult to know when a particular audience would be tuning in or out. In the mid-1980s MTV began offering long-form programming such as the original game show Remote Control and the style-conscious dance show Club MTV.

In the 1990s the network further developed its programming with notable shows that included the cartoon Beavis and Butthead and TV's first reality show, The Real World. By the turn of the millennium MTV rarely played music videos at all, and it relied on a heavy rotation of reality shows, the most successful of which included The Osbournes, featuring former Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne and his family, and Newlyweds, which followed the lives of just-married musical celebrities Jessica Simpson and Nick Lachey. By the early 2000s MTV had long been regarded as perhaps the single most influential force in American youth culture and as the premier forum for advertisers seeking to connect with adolescents and young adults.

Throughout MTV's evolution its own on-air promotions played a significant role in shaping the brand image. Most of this work ran on the network itself and was generated by in-house creative personnel. The early "I want my MTV" slogan permeated pop culture in the 1980s. To maintain the network's edgy image, subsequent branding work used odd, unpredictable content, including spots featuring hippie spokesman Randee of the Redwoods and, later, rants delivered by the then-little-known comedian Denis Leary. In 1999 the network turned to advertising agency Fallon McElligott (later called Fallon Worldwide) for its award-winning "Jukka Brothers" campaign. It featured four Finnish brothers whose only contact with the world beyond their homestead in the Scandinavian backcountry was MTV, which they watched in an outhouse.


MTV's target audience was 12- to 34-year-olds, with a particular emphasis on teens and young adults. MTV was also television's number one destination for viewers aged 18 to 34, a prime demographic for advertisers. The network's clear focus on its target audience had always been integral to its success. By staying in touch with the lifestyles and desires of teens and young adults and crafting its network personality accordingly, MTV had become much more than a simple source of entertainment for young people. Members of the so-called "MTV generation" presumably consulted the network for ideas on music, fashion, and social behavior. Further, pop-cultural literacy mandated a working knowledge of each season's MTV program offerings.

While the debate over the exact nature and extent of the network's influence on young people proved insoluble and ongoing, it was generally accepted that MTV powerfully informed the lives of many young people. "Watch and Learn" thus made implicit reference to the network's reputation for mind control. The trivial nature of the lessons presented in the "Watch and Learn" spots poked fun at the idea that young people turned to MTV for life instruction. At the same time the spots were intended to be entertaining in their own right, and their peculiarity served the purpose, in the network's view, of communicating MTV's consistently adventurous and unorthodox personality, a key attribute in its enduring appeal among young people.


Matt Vescovo, the freelance creator of the MTV "Watch and Learn" spots, had spent more than a decade in the advertising industry, working full-time for such agencies as Fallon Worldwide and Cliff Freeman and Partners in addition to freelancing for numerous other top agencies. In an Adweek interview, Mae Anderson asked Vescovo about his dream assignment, and he replied that the MTV "Watch and Learn" project was it. "I feel like they just let people do what they know how to do," Vescovo said. "They don't really meddle. I've shown them 15 promos, and they haven't changed a frame yet. I'm waiting for something to go wrong, because it doesn't seem like it should be like this."


Because the average TV viewer in the 2000s had access to hundreds of channels, brand definition had become particularly important for cable networks. In many ways MTV, with its clear brand identity and focused target audience, was the model for cable networks, positioned as it was to survive in an increasingly specialized and competitive cable marketplace. Among cable networks, ESPN, which focused on sports, had similar strengths and was, during this time, attempting to bolster its brand image further with a major television advertising campaign. Networks whose programming had traditionally been aimed at more general audiences, such as TBS Superstation, were meanwhile trying to sharpen their brand images through a combination of new programming strategies and advertising.

ESPN, an all-sports network launched two years before MTV, had similarly grown into a television giant as a result of its successful targeting of a specific audience. In the first two decades of its existence ESPN built a dedicated base of 18- to 34-year-old male viewers, for whom the sports network was an essential component of everyday life. In 2002 the network sought to reinforce the idea that it was virtually synonymous with sports through a TV campaign that asked viewers to consider a world without sports. "Without Sports" focused on everyday scenarios that showed the many ways in which sports and life were intimately and often humorously bound together. During the course of its multiyear run the campaign became a critically acclaimed award winner.

TBS Superstation, whose roots also extended to the early days of cable TV, was primarily known among consumers for rebroadcasts of movies and for live coverage of Atlanta Braves baseball games. Amid the proliferation of cable channels, however, in 2004 the network began to brand itself more rigorously, with a focus on comedy. After buying the rights to syndicated reruns of sitcom hits, including Sex and the City, Friends, Seinfeld, and Everybody Loves Raymond, TBS launched a campaign positioning the network as an arbiter of what was funny. Called "TBS. Very Funny," the campaign centered on a fictional hotline phone desk, where TBS representatives advised callers as to whether events they had witnessed were funny or not.


The "Watch and Learn" concept originated as the art project of an advertising freelancer, Matt Vescovo. A former creative director at high-profile ad agencies Fallon Worldwide and Cliff Freeman and Partners, Vescovo began focusing, in his spare time, on simple codes and rituals that shaped daily life. Borrowing the visual style of airline safety manuals, he created an initial set of 11 graphic-design images that would purportedly "teach" people about a variety of commonplace subjects. The project, collectively called "Instructoart," advised people, for example, on the appropriate techniques for removing hair from a bar of soap, doing the hokey pokey, and pretending to hold an elevator door for someone while letting it shut in his face. The "Instructoart" pieces were shown at art galleries in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and in New York in 2003, and Vescovo posted the so-called lessons on a website, The website included tongue-in-cheek personal information and an artist's statement in which Vescovo jokingly expressed an interest in adapting "Instructoart" for MTV station-identification spots. As it happened, MTV liked the idea and contracted Vescovo to adapt several of his pieces for television. Vescovo enlisted design shop Hornet to assist with the job, and the still illustrations were turned into live animation lessons.

Running under the tagline "Watch and Learn," and with a budget described only as minimal by MTV, an initial group of eight animated "Instructoart" pieces premiered during the MTV Video Music Awards on August 28, 2003. The Video Music Awards, presented as a brash alternative to conventional awards shows, typically drew the network's biggest yearly viewing audience. The first eight spots ran in programming breaks that night and through the next year, at lengths of 15 to 20 seconds, and they served as calm interludes amid the network's typically noisy and high-energy programming. The animation was intentionally flat, maintaining the look of airline-safety pamphlets. With figures that moved only minimally, the spots were free of dialogue and generally quiet. Kitschy music ran at the conclusion of each spot along with the MTV logo and the "Watch and Learn" tag.

Individual spots in the campaign included "Three-Second Rule," an illustration of the child's rule for eating food that had been dropped on the floor. One woman was shown picking up her food within the three-second span, eating it, and then continuing on her way. A second woman hesitated after dropping her food and thus violated the three-second rule; after she popped the bite in her mouth, she collapsed in pain with her hands on her stomach. "Musical Instruments" ranked, in descending order, various instruments—the electric guitar, the drums, the trumpet, the flute, the accordion, and the tuba—according to a meter labeled "sex" that appeared on one side of the screen while figures playing the instruments appeared on the other side. "Gay/Straight" showed one man patting another's buttocks while wearing normal clothing; the scenario was labeled "Gay." Then the same act was repeated, only the participants were wearing baseball uniforms; this time the scenario was labeled "Straight." Other memorable spots showed viewers how to produce impolite bodily noises with the underarm and how to hide male-pattern baldness with the universal "comb-over" technique.


"Watch and Learn" won numerous advertising-industry honors during the 2004 awards season. These included a Golden Pencil at the One Show Awards in the Consumer TV Campaign (Under:20) category, a Silver ANDY for media campaign, a Bronze ANDY in the interactive category (for the website, which contin-ued to run throughout the MTV campaign and incorporated the MTV spots), and the "Best Low Budget Campaign" honor at the London International Advertising and Design Awards. The campaign was also awarded top honors in the "Best Use of Humor" category of the 2005 Viral Awards, and it was a runner-up for that competition's grand prize, the "Most Infectious North American Viral Campaign."

MTV enlisted Vescovo to craft another round of "Watch and Learn" spots in 2004, and Vescovo continued to expand the "Instructoart" franchise beyond the network. In February 2004 Instructoart: The Book was released, and the "Instructoart" pieces made the rounds of international art galleries in subsequent years. Two more book versions of "Instructoart" were published in 2004 and 2005. MTV remained one of the world's strongest brands and the top TV destination for young people.


Anderson, Mae. "On the Spot: Matt Vescovo." Adweek, July 26, 2004.

"Conquering the Universe with Big Hair, Beavis and the Backstreet Boys." Newsweek, July 23, 2001.

Dover, Caitlin. "Life: A User's Manual." Print, March/April 2004.

Fera, Rae Ann. "How to Live, MTV Style." Boards Online, August 27, 2003. Available from <>

"Hornet's MTV How-To Guide." Creativity, September 2003.

"MTV 'Watch and Learn.'" Creativity, April 2005.

Nudd, Tim. "MTV Hooked on 'Instructoart.'" Adweek, September 15, 2003.

Shortman, Melanie. "Hornet." Creativity, March 2004.

Vescovo, Matt. Instructoart. <>

                                                   Mark Lane