Those who watched presidential candidate Bill Clinton last night in an MTV town meeting might have been surprised to discover that the cable channel is not only about rap artists, Madonna and music videos.
For the past year, though, MTV has been very much about news, documentaries and public affairs treated with a multicultural sensibility. And, in the new TV universe of fragmented audiences and demographics-as-god, that makes MTV one of the more important media players on the dial this election year. It also means even less influence for the old-line broadcast networks -- NBC, CBS, ABC and PBS -- and their white, male, middle-aged news orientation.
For those who didn't see the MTV show, it featured Clinton fielding questions from a group of about 200 people ranging in age from 18 to 24. The forum was moderated by Tabitha Soren, an MTV political correspondent, and Catherine Crier of CNN's "Crier & Co." and taped yesterday morning.
MTV says it did the show out of a sense of social responsibility.
"MTV reaches 15 million 18- to 24-year-olds in 56 million households in the U.S.," said Judy McGrath, creative director MTV: Music Television. "With this unmatched access and our credibility with this audience, we recognize that MTV has a responsibility to provide an opportunity for its viewers to confront the issues that shape their lives and the legislators who will shape their futures."
The cable channel has a right to talk about credibility and responsibility. Since last July when it announced that it was getting into the news and public affairs business, MTV has run impressive documentaries on racism and the environment, as well as its ongoing reports on politics. A new weekly issues show, "Like We Care," has intelligently dealt with topics ranging from sexual harassment to hickeys. Last night's forum, "An MTV Choose or Lose Special: Facing the Future With Bill Clinton," is part of its "Choose or Lose" yearlong election effort that includes everything from political convention coverage to state by state voter registration information. MTV is making a commitment to provide its audience with relevant news, information and perspective.
But it's not all social conscience and public service, of course.
"Look, we've got the twentysomething viewers everybody wants," said an MTV executive, who asked that his name not be used. "The more full-service we are, the less our viewers ever have to leave our channel. We don't want our viewers going to ABC or NBC for news." That's a strategy being followed by other niche programmers -- from BET expanding its news menu for African-American viewers to the Lifetime cable channel adding public affairs show to keep its audience of women from straying.
MTV's audience of viewers in their 20s is part of a group everybody is trying to reach. The majority of next year's new fall shows on ABC, NBC and Fox are geared to that group. The twentysomething demographics are the reason Clinton came to cable's MTV last night and Arsenio Hall's syndicated show two weeks ago.
James Carville, a Clinton strategist, explained it by saying, "They asked Willie Sutton why he robbed banks. 'That's where the money is,' he said. The reason people are going to these types of formats to get their messages out is that's where the voters are."
Like MTV, Arsenio Hall is very strong with voters 18 to 34, especially women. There's an extra bonus to reaching the young audience, Carville said in an interview on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley." "Campaigns follow the voters. . . . The people that watch shows like Arsenio Hall's . . . are what we euphemistically refer to as surge voters -- voters that come out in presidential election years, people that are disaffected, people that don't get the same level of information as people that watch this show."
The arithmetic goes like this: MTV has a highly desired audience and is urging that audience to vote. One strong appearance by Clinton on the channel could result in viewers voting for him. And these are voters who otherwise might not be part of the process.
MTV has invited Ross Perot and George Bush to appear in similar forums. And while Bush and Perot campaign officials say they are seriously considering the offer, the betting in Clinton's camp is that neither will accept. And if they do accept, the thinking goes, Bush and Perot might look uncomfortable in a setting that is not mainly made up of older white men in suits asking the questions.
MTV and Arsenio Hall are part of a larger movement: the change from white-male hegemony to a multicultural America. The fragmenting of the TV audience into many different groups determined by age, gender and other factors goes hand-in-hand with the fragmenting of the body politic.
MTV learned from the charges of racism leveled against it in the early 1980s for playing mainly white videos. It has become a lot more sensitive to issues of race, age and gender in its public affairs programs than the broadcast networks. Its moderators last night were women; its audience was made up of people usually excluded from the discourse of national elections.
The politics of candidates ignoring the networks' evening newscasts and Sunday morning talk shows for niche cable channels and syndicated programs are only starting to be analyzed and understood. But one thing seems clear: The addition of MTV as a news and public affairs player makes for more inclusive and relevant media.