NEW YORK - When MTV Networks said in January that it would test home shopping, many people wondered why it took so long.
The cable music channel, launched in 1981, created a new television genre and became a cultural icon. Now MTV will capitalize on that by stamping its logo on T-shirts, caps and knapsacks, hawking Beavis and Butthead paraphernalia and merchandising the cheeky Ren and Stimpy cartoon characters in home shopping programs starting next month.
MTV Networks, a unit of Viacom Inc., will air the tests on its three networks: MTV, VH-1 and Nickelodeon. If successful, the tests will ultimately lead to a stand-alone home shopping channel.
But MTV will also go beyond licensing its brands. Its goal is to be a specialty store retailer, and it will bring music-related products such as concert tickets as well as designer fashion into the mix.
"We have three channels as signposts," said Mark Rosenthal, executive vice president of affiliate sales and marketing for MTV Networks. "The fourth channel will be where the retailing takes place.
"QVC and Home Shopping Network are very broad-based stores," Rosenthal continued. "The future of home shopping is narrow stores."
Home shopping programming will be introduced to the three networks gradually, with about four hours of programming per channel each week.
"We're doing it in front of 60 million households on MTV and 50 million on VH-1," Rosenthal said. "This is going to be a very public test." Nickelodeon also claims 60 million households.
Rosenthal said that the distinctive personalities of the three networks will define the merchandise.
There could be half-hour shows that sell the work of one recording artist and recurring shows that sell "extremely hot, cutting-edge apparel items that you'd find in New York and Los Angeles but not too many other places.
"We are in discussions with a number of major fashion designers," Rosenthal said, declining to be more specific. "A lot of people want to be associated with MTV. We have a strong tie-in with MTV's "House of Style" (the Cindy Crawford program that delves into fashion). It has given us a kind of entree."'House of Style' is a terrific franchise and means a lot to our audience," Rosenthal added. "There may be some clever ways to work alongside 'House of Style' to provide a service to our audience."
Ideas include using models as celebrity hosts and doing behind-the-scenes segments at fashion shows. Rosenthal would not confirm whether Crawford would be involved in home shopping.
Gabe Doppelt, a former editor in chief of Mademoiselle, who was hired by MTV to oversee all non-music related merchandise, said the fashion "has to be as current as fashion is in magazines," adding, "MTV has to have a runway of its own."
She said a collection of MTV private label apparel is further down the road.
"We already license MTV and 'Nick-at-Night' products," she said, referring to the nostalgia programming on the Nickelodeon channel in the evenings. "We already know we can sell that. We want to try and see if we can sell other people's stuff."
Doppelt said fashion-related products will account for about a third of the home shopping merchandise.
"I'm trying to get fashion into everything," she said. "There's no reason why I can't get a frock on every show."
MTV has answered the short-term issue of diminished cable channel capacity by airing home shopping on its existing channels. Rosenthal said that by the time the company is ready to move home shopping to its own channel, the concept will be familiar to cable system operators.
"Cable operators are very interested in channels that are transactionally based and don't increase their subscribers' bills," he added. "This will be driven by three other networks they currently carry."
Rosenthal said that some of MTV Network's home shopping programming will be featured on Viacom/AT&T's interactive test in Castro Valley, Calif., later this year.
Viacom's recent acquisition of Paramount Communications will bring new opportunites for merchandising film properties, while Viacom's pending merger with Blockbuster Entertainmenet would provide access to thousands of videos, noted Rosenthal.
There is a long precedent to selling music on TV. Long before MTV, the music industry was using television for direct sales of albums, often compilations described as "not available in any store!"Now, record companies are seizing cable television and home shopping opportunities as an alternative to the large music chains that have a stranglehold on the industry.
EMI (Capitol) Polygram, Sony, Warner records and Ticketmaster have announced plans to launch a video music and cable TV channel to compete with MTV. Direct response will reportedly be part of the new service.
Cable giant Tele-Communications Inc. and Bertelsmann Music Group have agreed to develop a music channel that will offer music-related products.
Asked whether music stores are up in arms over new sources of competition, Rosentahl said, "When MTV originally launched, radio stations cried out and said, "Nobody's going to listen to us." That didn't happen. We think that putting emphasis on selling music will get more people interested in music and bring more people to record stores."
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