Turner Tunes

That time Ted Turner tried to compete with MTV by launching a competing music network of his own. It lasted five days longer than CNN+ did.

By Ernie Smith

Today in Tedium: I have said many times that I think Ted Turner was perhaps the most innovative man in the history of television—who, during his history as a cable television mogul, had developed a reputation of building genuinely interesting ideas for broadcast programming. But as anyone who lived to experience AOL Time Warner can tell you, there were a couple of mistakes on his watch, but one of the ones that doesn’t get discussed very much involves his attempt to compete with MTV. After winning over cable television the world over with WTBS and CNN, Turner tried something nearly as risky as launching a 24-hour all-news network: A network that competed with another cable network. Wondering which one? I’ll give you a hint—it played music, and it didn’t really work. Today’s Tedium talks about the Cable Music Channel, a network that lasted five whole days longer than CNN+ did. Yes, that’s how bad of a flop it was. — Ernie @ Tedium

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The war that never happened—why MTV never faced true competition on the cable dial

You know, it’s disappointing that we didn’t really get a music video network “war” in the United States, because, honestly, we could have used one.

Think about it. Radio stations all too often had to compete with one another based on format, allowing for variety in what people could listen to. During the ’80s, this led to the rise of the “oldies” format, for example.

But it turns out, there was a reason for that. By the time competition showed up, MTV had sewn up the market so tightly that it was challenging for new players to make their presence felt.

This is partly the result of MTV’s roots as a joint venture. See, the network was originally half-owned by Warner Bros, which meant that it has a much closer relationship with traditional record labels than other networks of its type. And that meant that when music video competition did appear, MTV was well-positioned to fend it off.

Especially in 1984, arguably the peak year of the music video as a popular phenomenon.

That year, the Discovery Music Network, a planned television network that was unrelated to the later Discovery Channel and its namesake company, attempted to gain some momentum as it attempted to build the case for an alternative to the big music network. Problem is, the fledgling network ran into a major roadblock—the fact that three of the major labels had exclusive contracts with MTV that prevented the labels from distributing their music elsewhere.

Eventually, the Discovery Music Network sued MTV over this state of affairs, which eventually prevented the network from actually launching as it couldn’t build a strong enough network of cable providers and television stations to make it happen. MTV eventually settled with the competitor-to-be, essentially in exchange for legal fees, in May of 1986—by which point, the better-known Discovery Channel had launched.

There is little record of Discovery Music Network actually existing in video form, other than a clip of members of Spandau Ballet recording a promo for the network. At least the Discovery Music Network had “True” in their corner.

The what-ifs are pretty interesting in this situation. If Discovery Music Network had been allowed to properly launch, would the Discovery Channel, and Discovery the company, have been allowed to become the dominant players they are today—putting Discovery in a position to merge with Warner Bros. and hack and slash that company’s content slate? We’ll never know. Maybe the Discovery Music Network might have become bewilderingly dominant itself.

1983

The year that TBS first aired its late-night Night Tracks franchise. The concept, an overnight music video show at a time when music videos were hot, was Turner’s first foray into the music video craze, and came at a time when a lot of other networks, including NBC and the USA Network, were attempting to lean into music videos in smaller blocks. The Turner-owned TBS ran with this format for about nine years, during which the network went through a variety of different modes, with the block taking on country music, pop music, hard rock, and later alternative music before its eventual demise. Notably, the block—which ran overnights on the weekends—basically used the same two blocks each weekend, but just swapped the order, which proved useful as it ensured that everything would eventually air. (See, Turner often aired live sports, and it was common for sports to pre-empt the first block.)

Cable Music Channel

The Cable Music Channel logo, as it appeared in its initial airing.

No filth, no carriage fees: Ted Turner’s idea of a cable music channel

In the early 1980s, Turner was well-positioned to become a dominant player on the cable dial, having made TBS into a unique “SuperStation” proposition by this point and making CNN into enough of a force in cable news that there was already a CNN2. (CNN2, launched in 1982, would become Headline News, then HLN—a network that still exists but was recently gutted by Warner Bros. Discovery cuts.)

Ted Turner had successfully launched three cable networks. What would the fourth be? Well—it would be an attempt to directly compete with MTV, bringing music videos to the masses.

Developed at roughly the same time as the Discovery Music Network, the Cable Music Channel took an interesting approach to differentiating itself from MTV. Essentially, it involved a little light slander. Leaning into an unearned reputation for violence and filth on the dominant music video channel that helped lead to the Parents Music Resource Center in 1985, the network promoted itself as a channel where you wouldn’t get the sex or drugs, but just the rock ’n’ roll. As a 1984 New York Daily News story put it:

The opening salvos in what promises to be one of the harder-fought battles for the hearts, minds and eyes of young America were fired earlier this summer on MTV’s home turf in New York, when Turner, speaking to a group of cable operators, described MTV as a “sleazy operation” that played “dirty videos.” MTV declined to respond to Turner’s remarks, but MTV’s chief operating officer, Bob Pittman, has indicated that in his view, the coaxial cable isn’t big enough for two pop video empires.

Highlighting the dynamic nature of the announcement, the network was referred to in the story as the Music Video Network, or MVN, but it first appeared on air a month later as the CMC. (Side note: I realize that the Cable Music Channel is really not a creative name, let alone one that looks anywhere near as good as the branding juggernaut that MTV became. But it does neatly fit into a portfolio that at this point included Cable News Network and Cable Headline News. Remember, this was Ted Turner’s fourth network, he was still learning.)

CMC’s pitch was perhaps a little aggressive—and the claims about MTV peddling smut on the air “a baloney issue” according to an anonymous source who spoke to The New York Times—but it did make sense if you think about music videos in radio terms. In many ways, radio stations often aim at different demographics for reasons of advertising and taste, and up until this point MTV had basically aimed for the youth crowd. That meant slightly older people who still liked new music but weren’t necessarily hot on hair metal just kind of had to live with whatever MTV aired.

Sure, networks like Black Entertainment Television and The Nashville Network started to make room for different demographics of music, but lots of people could see it: In a world where Mötley Crüe had a prominent presence on the primary music television network, there still needed to be room for Phil Collins.

This was an obvious enough gap in the market that multiple networks had basically the same idea at roughly the same time. The USA Network, for instance, launched Heartlight City, a music video block targeted at women, around this time. The Discovery Music Network also aimed for this demographic as well. And it turned out, even MTV’s owners—a 50/50 mix of American Express and Warner Communications—had realized this might be an important market and prepared a network that met the needs of this particular audience. (That network, of course, became VH1. More on that in a second.)

The Cable Music Channel, beyond the guy who was funding it, attempted to take a different approach to MTV in all the ways that mattered. While MTV was a New York network through-and-through, something later emphasized by Total Request Live, CMC attempted to make its mark as an L.A. station. (Perhaps for that reason, Randy Newman was prominent in their advertising, and the first music video the channel ever aired was “I Love L.A.”)

While MTV had video jockeys throughout the day, CMC tried to keep them out of the way by only utilizing them in voiceover roles, similar to how it might work at an actual radio station. Above is a an example of what I mean.

And while MTV attempted to underline its hipness in its branding and style, CMC instead leaned on a heavy use of computer graphics, in a way that was decidedly not “hip.”

In true Ted Turner style, the network started with stock footage of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and video from a press conference in which the City of Los Angeles declared it “Cable Music Channel Day,” and Ted Turner made a few remarks.

We’re gonna play a wider range of music. We’re gonna stay away from excessively violent or degrading clips towards that MTV has been so fond of running. We feel that young people in particular are tremendously influenced by what they see and whatever they’re exposed to is the way they’re going to turn out. And we want to hopefully, as time goes on, try and influence music in a positive, loving, and kind way, with brotherhood and beauty, the way we are trying with Turner Broadcasting with all of our programming, at the superstation and so forth to portray to this nation and to the world.

He then pressed a giant red button and the network launched. So yeah, not exactly like the vibes of the launch of MTV at all. (And Turner is surprisingly not very media polished in this announcement given that he’s a guy who at this time runs four TV networks!)

Nonetheless, this odd launch fits with the vibes of a media mogul like Turner, who famously created a doomsday video and launched an alternative version of The Olympics called the Goodwill Games. As I’ve written in the past, I consider Turner a force of good in the world as far as media moguls go.

So why didn’t this turn into the war everyone was expecting? Simple—MTV’s initial prediction that there wasn’t enough room for two separate music empires was actually fairly true, and this turned out to be the case even though the network was starting to hit up cable providers for carriage fees to help fund all the music videos it was airing (and to take some of the pressure off of advertising).

CMC, in many ways, was an attempt to offer a version of this model for cable providers who did not want to pay the carriage fees. In other words, it was a model that existed to leverage a gap in the cable market.

The network was also subject to the same challenges as the Discovery Music Network in terms of exclusivity, with many major artists tied up in MTV-exclusive deals. The ads highlighted the artists Turner was able to get—the aforementioned Newman, Steve Miller, Corey Hart, Sparks, Menudo, and Little Richard. Not exactly a top-shelf list of artists, but not bad—after all, any list that can include both Randy Newman and Sparks clearly was made by someone with taste.

Nonetheless, a lot of major artists were missing.

“I don’t like their exclusivity,” Turner told The Times. “But we’ll get started and see how it goes. We’ll get adequate material.”

It did not go well, and they did not get adequate material.

$1M

The amount that MTV Networks paid Turner Broadcasting to take over ownership of the Cable Music Channel’s assets, in a deal that was announced just over a month after CMC opened its doors. The deal, which also came with $500,000 in advertising for Turner networks on MTV stations, reflected the challenge that Turner faced in building out the market. He wanted to reach 10 million homes, but could only get 400,000 on board. It turns out that network effects are really strong when there’s already an established player who already has exclusive contracts with most of the labels. (It also didn’t help that there weren’t that many channels on the cable dial at that time.) All in all, it was a savvy business move on Turner’s part—he tried something, then killed it and sold it as soon as it was clear it was not going to work, and minimized losses. Per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the company had planned to spend as much as $20 million to launch the network, but in the end only lost about $1.5 million.

Ted Turner thought he could make it happen, but the cable industry simply had other ideas.

“We continue to believe that Cable Music Channel is a top-quality music video service, but we simply have not had enough support from the cable industry for it to become a viable part of our business,” Turner said in a statement upon CMC’s demise.

The result was that a music television battle failed to become anywhere close to an actual war. MTV eventually did get competition on the music videos front—first from The Box, which it later acquired, and then from the Muchmusic spinoff Fuse, which was effectively doing videos at a time when MTV had downplayed them—but it was nothing compared to what a Ted Turner all-out war could have been.

Sure, MTV’s branding was endlessly cooler than anything CMC could have come up with, but on the surface you could make the case that Turner’s brilliance in the 1980s and 1990s was that he often found ways to make uncool things into important parts of the television landscape.

Sure, CMC didn’t even make it a full Quibi—not even half a Quibi. But it also didn’t lose anywhere near as much money as Quibi did, either.

CMC’s legacy, of course, didn’t totally die. Those assets that MTV bought from Turner became the basis of VH1, a network that in many ways (at least in its early years) did basically what Turner was trying to do with CMC. It launched about a month after the CMC sale went down.

The only difference was that MTV remained in the music video driver’s seat for a little longer.

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Ernie Smith

Your time was just wasted by Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the editor of Tedium, and an active internet snarker. Between his many internet side projects, he finds time to hang out with his wife Cat, who's funnier than he is.

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