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MTV wants to take VMA viewers backstage

Behind-the-scenes broadband show to air online during Thursday's show
/ Source: The Associated Press

For fans who want to see more of Beyonce or Ludacris at next week's Video Music Awards, MTV is offering a trip backstage at Radio City Music Hall.

Not physically, of course. That would get way too crowded. The network is putting on a broadband program to run concurrently with the VMAs on Aug. 31 and give people at home a taste of what is happening beyond the reach of the TV station's cameras.

The programming experiment is a milestone for MTV as it heads into its 26th year with the goal of expanding into as many media realms as possible, and for television in general as it explores the limits of multitasking.

"What does Beyonce do before she goes onstage?" said Christina Norman, MTV's president. "Does she pray? Does she cry? Does she check her make-up?"

Whatever it is, it won't be private (with limits, of course).

Before its test runs the past few months with "Total Request Live," MTV believes no other network has tried airing simultaneous, competing shows on the same topic on different platforms, said Dave Sirulnick, MTV executive vice president.

He compared it to 1990, when MTV pioneered the idea of presenting a pre-show prior to the VMAs. Now that's a staple for all big awards shows, and Sirulnick is convinced this broadband step is no less significant.

"At the heart of it is, it gives the viewer the experience of being there," he said.

The backstage show is presented on MTV Overdrive, which last year offered users backstage snippets and highlights of the TV show on demand after the ceremony was over.

MTV tried out the technology during visits by Jamie Foxx, Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson to "TRL" recently. Foxx entertained the studio audience with jokes and songs during TV commercial breaks, which were shown on Overdrive. Aguilera guided a dressing room tour, showing off her wardrobe to the online audience, while Simpson let folks listen in on calls she made to her friends.

Those are the sort of things planned for the VMAs. Overdrive will peek into the backstage press room, show celebrities hanging out and perhaps follow a star from the dressing room to the stage, as it did for Kelly Clarkson last year.

"I have personally spoken with a number of artists about this and the reaction I have gotten is `that is so cool, that's what you should be doing, that's what I want to watch' — even though they're the ones that are involved in it," Sirulnick said.

Overdrive users will also be able to download highlights of the television and online shows about a half hour after they air live, he said.

There's an irony in MTV taking this bold step for broadband, since it was on the wrong end of a defining broadband moment last summer. The Live 8 concert drew a significant audience for America Online in part because viewers were dissatisfied with MTV's coverage.

The obvious risk this year is that Overdrive will poach part of MTV's audience for the awards, which advertisers would frown upon. MTV believes that a significant portion of its audience, particularly for an event like this, is online the same time it is watching TV.

People also might turn on the TV after spotting the program online, Sirulnick said. He believes the simultaneous online program will add to the TV audience. The Foxx, Aguilera and Simpson "TRL" programs had higher television ratings than are typical for the show, although the popularity of the stars involved might have had something to do with that.

"There's certainly a danger ... that you will cannibalize the audience," said Adi Kishore, an Internet analyst for the Yankee Group. "I think it's still worth it. If you have a strong brand, you're better off cannibalizing it yourself than having somebody do it for you."

Short, buzz worthy videos — the kind you're likely to see on — work best online and it seems MTV recognizes this, Kishore said.

Still, what it's doing next week is probably more important for the MTV of five years from now, he said. MTV's youthful audience is the one most likely to be looking for entertainment on the computer, cell phones and iPods and it's important for MTV to establish its brand there so it is not outmaneuvered by upstarts, he said.

That is precisely MTV's strategy. Executives like Norman and Sirulnick repeat that mantra, and have changed MTV's structure to emphasize the importance of creating programming for several different formats.

This year's VMAs may be remembered at MTV as a key point in that transition — as much as viewers are likely to recall some outrageous moment from their favorite star.

"It will have to evolve just like everything else," Sirulnick said. "If the audience likes what we're doing now, we're going to continue to give it to them, but constantly evolve it. The first year we do this, we're going to learn a ton from our audience."