Cable television must be one of the most infinite time-sucks ever created. With over 200 channels there are all the old ways to waste time—movies, gossip, critically abhorred but popular programs—and a slew of new ones, endless nature footage, today’s soap operas tonight, critically acclaimed but cancelled programs. There is also an old way to waste time: music videos, on a new network, Fuse. With five stations, MTV, MTV2, VHI, BET, and CMT, already showing videos sometimes, you would think they were getting enough airplay. "Not so!" cries Fuse, a station whose very existence is predicated on the idea that there just aren’t enough music videos on music television.
To rectify this situation Fuse shows videos almost 24 hours a day. Videos are not shown at random, but in programs like Rockzilla, which exclusively airs rock videos, ¡Marcha!, which plays alternative Latin music, or Authentic Hip Hop. These shows do not have VJ’s or any other commentary; just videos. Other un-hosted hours play new acts, new videos, top ten countdowns, and different bands’ entire video oeuvre. Dedicate Live plays the dedications of online viewers writing in categories like "love," "hate," and "bite me." Such programming combats the major problem with the video for a station: it doesn’t exactly constitute must-see television. People don’t set their VCRs to tape videos, like they might for Friends, The O.C., or even The Newlyweds. Fuse’s shows are meant to be a block of must-see videos for the rock junkie, hip-hop fan, or music connoisseur.
One such "must see" show is Uranium, a popular hosted hour for hard rock fans. On the website for Uranium there is a game called "Pop a Star," in which the player is encouraged to help "fend off evil corporate pop stars from domination" by bopping such personalities as Britney Spears, Puff Daddy, Scott Stapp, and Kurt Loder over the head. This game is the creation of one show in particular, and most definitely does not reflect the attitude of the station in general, which shares neither Uranium’s distaste for pop stars nor for corporations. Videos by mainstream artists, Spears and Stapp’s band Creed among them, are shown on Fuse. The station is also sponsored by mainstream music powerhouses Virgin and Tower Records, which even has a show, Tower Records presents the Next Big Thing Awards, named after it. And to balance out Uranium’s anti-corporate stance, there is always the show IMX, which extols the fun of the stock market.
IMX is a combination TV show and video game. It has a live studio audience, interviews with bands, VJ’s (one of whom is also the host of Uranium), and a stock ticker continuously scrolling across the bottom of the screen, with listings such as 2PAC and POD. Players sign up online and are given a set amount of X$ in order to buy stocks in artists, albums, videos, and TV offerings, which can be traded and sold short or for profit online. With such profits, players can win really cool stuff like a Nintendo, vacation, surfboard, or a Creed lithograph, all brought to them by Virgin Records. IMX is a very in-depth, well-constructed game, intended to take up hours and hours of your time at work, which it probably could. But, in mimicking the aesthetics and point of the stock market—i.e. to make lots of money—IMX makes the anti-corporate position espoused by "Pop a Star" ring false.
Fuse maintains credibility anyway because it shows "More music videos, less crappy television." This tag line is both a mission statement and a not-so-subtle jab at MTV, the field’s leader, an almost hegemonic pop-culture force, and the purveyor of lots of "crappy television." On MTV you are much more likely to come across The Osbournes, The Real World, Cribs, or some self-congratulatory special cataloguing MTV’s own history, than you are a block of music videos. This, however, is not news. Remarking that MTV rarely shows videos is kind of like talking about the new smoking laws: it was interesting once. But, this charge still has some bite because though MTV may be wildly popular, due in large part to its programming, it is also perceived as something of a sellout, due in large part to its programming.
MTV’s sellout status doesn’t have anything, directly, to do with its decision to forego videos. Enough fodder can be found in the facts: MTV it is a huge marketing force for major labels, movie studios, and celebrity at large, it is a holding of media giant Viacom, and it aligns itself with mainstream musical tastes, even when what’s popular is not very musical.
But the decision to abandon videos just adds fuel to the fire, because videos still connote some kind of musical and artistic credibility. Forget that videos are now million-dollar spectacles that are used to generate sales and buzz. Forget that most videos are just another way of merchandising. Forget even that videos, with some noticeable exceptions, are derivative and boring. With videos, unlike "The story of seven strangers picked to live in a house," there is still the potential for true artistic expression. Or at least, that’s what seems to enable a television station like Fuse, necessarily a multi-million dollar affair, showing videos, to position itself as more respectable and independent than MTV, a station specializing in variations of reality TV.
Whether or not you feel this way about the video is, of course, a matter of opinion. But, the video as art seems to be gaining some mainstream acceptance. The DVD releases of directors Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and Chris Cunningham’s collected music videos were interpreted in a recent Times article as signifying a growing "auteur theory of music videos and an acceptance of them as a cinematic art form." MTV itself, with constant specials looking back upon the early years when it was innovative, naive, and showed non-stop low quality, experimental videos, has helped establish the video as something authentic and basically untainted despite its close ties to the big business music industry.
The video is really all that separates Fuse and MTV, which are alike in many ways. They feature many of the same musicians, have similar well-executed marketing and are responsive to their viewers. Like MTV, Fuse uses an ironic, funny, and irreverent tone in their print ads, which star Tammy Faye Messner (a.k.a. Bakker), (the former) Miss. Cleo, and the president of the hair club for men as spokespeople. The Tammy Faye ad reads, "Fuse is #1 with Tammy Faye who is #3 with drag queens." Fuse also has an excellent website (www.fuse.tv) that figures in prominently with all of its programming. Taking a cue from MTV’s TRL, almost half of Fuse’s shows rely upon audience participation, which is usually mediated by said website.
Fuse is similar to MTV in more symbolic ways as well. It may be the antidote for today’s MTV, but it is also a remake of MTV when it first began—a young, cool station showing videos all the time. Like that MTV, which famously helped video kill the radio star, Fuse is all about bringing the video back into prominence. Fuse hopes to do for the video what MTV already did for the video, before abandoning it for higher ratings, bigger buzz, and reality television. Only time will tell if Fuse is up to the task.
Willa Paskin is a writer based in New York City.