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The MTV Beat

The intimate relationship between music and fashion in today’s popular culture is no secret. But what perhaps isn’t widely known is that the head of one of the nexuses of that relationship — MTV Networks — actually started in...

The intimate relationship between music and fashion in today’s popular culture is no secret. But what perhaps isn’t widely known is that the head of one of the nexuses of that relationship — MTV Networks — actually started in the fashion business.

This story first appeared in the November 18, 2002 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Tom Freston, chairman and chief executive of MTV Networks, ran a clothing operation out of India and Afghanistan for eight years in the 1970s. “Long before the Taliban was putting women in burkas in Kabul, we were there copying their peasant look and selling it to Bloomingdale’s and Bendel’s,” said Freston, who returned to New York and joined the company that would become MTV in 1980. “I went from Kabul to cable and never looked back.”

And that early training has come in handy. For as Freston outlined in his keynote address, the challenges and opportunities facing the apparel industry are analogous to those he faces at the helm of MTV Networks, a company which now includes such diverse media outlets as MTV, MTV2, VH1, Nickelodeon, Nick at Nite, TV Land, TNN and CMT.

“Both [fashion and music] are big influencers on each other, both good and bad, and both perpetually face the big issues of how do you stay relevant? And how do you stay slightly ahead of the curve in an era of accelerated change? Today a pop singer can be washed up by the time he is 21, and a must-have T-shirt can be a household rag by the time the summer is over.”

For Freston, one of the key requirements for succeeding in this kind of environment is building strong brands. “A brand is a big advantage in a time of rapid change,” he noted — especially considering the fact that an average digital home now boasts more than 170 cable channel choices. “Our business is based on the very simple premise of building loyal relationships with specialized audiences by obsessively knowing them and creating unique networks that appeal to them and have a cohesive feel, attitude, style and environment.”

How does MTV know which tactics will help burnish its brand and keep it abreast of audience tastes? Research plays a crucial role, said Freston. “When I talk about research I can often feel creative people beginning to cringe,” he admitted. “But I believe research is not antithetical to creativity, but is actually a great help to creativity these days when your cycle is shorter and you have to design your business to reflect that.”

Through field research, focus groups (more than 300 this year alone) and even hypnosis (“We look at brain-wave activity while people are looking at certain music videos,” explained Freston), MTV is relentless in its quest to understand what makes its target audience tick, on issues ranging from sex and politics to family, shopping, food and entertainment. “We cast a wide net because if you cast wide enough you might catch something that you might not otherwise have thought of.” And how to account for the runaway cross-generational success of characters like SpongeBob SquarePants? “People like a sponge as a character,” shrugged Freston.

One of the most important topics of MTV’s research is understanding the demographic bulge known as Generation Y, who are the 60 million Americans aged 10 to 24. Some key pointers to think about when addressing this audience? They tend to harbor widely different attitudes and belief systems than their Boomer parents, but at the same time view their parents and teachers (along with God) as personal heros. A conservative, pragmatic, spiritual generation, Gen-Y is less promiscuous then previous generations. While the teen years tended to be angst-filled for their elders, today’s adolescents are enjoying this portion of their lives. For many Gen-Y members, traditional family structures aren’t as important and their tolerance of minority groups, such as gays, is high. (This may have something to do with the fact that racial and ethnic minorities now make up about 36 percent of the population, and are growing.)

For marketers, it’s important to remember that Gen-Y is incredibly comfortable with new technology as well as highly media savvy. “They have been barraged with messages and advertising since the day they were born and as a consequence of that they have very sensitive B.S. detectors,” explained Freston. “So the tough news is they can be a hard sell. The good news is that if you have something they like, they are basically eager consumers. They believe in the consumer society.” Some of Gen-Y’s favorite purchases? “Authentic experiential cool” brands like Krispy Kreme, Kiehl’s, H&M, In-N-Out Burger, and personalized ring tones for their cell phones.

However, for Freston, research is only one component of successfully moving a creative business forward. “At best, it gives you a map of the terrain and you still have to figure out where you want to go and how you are going to get there, and at the heart of that comes good guts.” One glaring example of research’s limits is MTV’s current runaway hit, “The Osbournes,” which could hardly have been predicted through a study, noted Freston. He added that is why another key is to find people with great instincts.

Another important factor in remaining relevant in the television and fashion worlds is flexibility. MTV has learned to quickly cancel programming that has lost its cultural relevancy. “We’ve learned not to try to get another season out of an idea once it started losing its creative value or popularity,” said Freston. (On a program note, Freston said he was as surprised as anyone when Sharon Osbourne announced to Barbara Walters that she wanted to end “The Osbournes” after the current season. “I said ‘Jesus Christ, she’s not supposed to say this.’ I know, with people like the Osbournes, to enjoy their unreliability in certain ways. She could walk out at any minute.” But Freston added that when he spoke to her shortly after the broadcast, Osbourne recanted, and the show will go on.)

Of course, the ever-changing terrain of the fashion and television worlds can be a daunting environment. “It highlights some of the frustration that some of us have on our jobs — that you really can’t enjoy a moment of success and celebrate because you have to think six to twelve months ahead when that success is probably going to be out of date,” said Freston. “But that’s part of the excitement and challenge of our business.”