The Jukebox Network -- Can the latest music channel be the next MTV or VH-1?

At first glance, the Jukebox Network could be MTV, VH-1, or any other music- video cable channel. But while some people just say ”I Want My MTV,” Jukebox fans specifically say, ”I want my Madonna” or ”Paula Abdul” or ”R.E.M.” That’s because, unlike MTV and VH-1, where videos are selected by professional programmers armed with sales and demographic reports, the clips on the Jukebox Network are chosen by the audience.

To make a selection on this juke, viewers choose a title from an on-screen menu of 200-300 videos, dial a 900 number, and punch in the code number of the recording they want to hear. As the caller enters the number, it shows up on-screen so that everyone watching can see what songs are coming up. The videos, which cost the caller between $2 and $3, depending on the cable operator, are played in the order they are selected, and like the jukebox in your favorite bar, the wait for a requested song can be 15 to 20 minutes.

To keep the waiting time down, each local cable company offering the service has its own jukebox. And though viewers pay to select their favorite videos, the network is part of the basic cable service, so any subscriber can watch. ”You have a sense of excitement when you watch the channel and know that it’s being programmed by other viewers,” says John Robson, the Jukebox’s director of production.

Still, comparisons of the two-year-old Jukebox Network with MTV are inevitable — and justifiable. Andrew H. Orgel, Jukebox’s president and CEO, and Les Garland, its vice president of programming, were among the founders of MTV. The biggest difference between MTV and Jukebox, says Marshall Cohen, an MTV spokesman, is that Jukebox is ”totally responsive to the whims of whoever dials the number.” That can be a liability as well as an asset. Listeners may have to sit through an unrelieved string of rap songs or oldies they don’t want to hear. On the other hand, since new music is added each week, the audience also gets to hear fledgling acts — giving the network the potential to be a hit maker.

Jukebox executives take particular pride in showcasing such former unknowns as Vanilla Ice, M.C. Hammer, Tone L oc, and most recently, Gerardo. ”When we got Gerardo’s tape, he didn’t have a record label and he didn’t sing a word of English,” says Robson. ”As a result of the requests on the Jukebox Network, ‘Rico Suave’ started taking off. Later on, MTV picked it up.”

The network has also distinguished itself from the other channels by airing controversial videos. Madonna’s sexy ”Justify My Love” was Jukebox’s most requested song for a month following its release. Garth Brooks’ ”The Thunder Rolls,” banned by the Nashville Network because of scenes of domestic violence, has also been airing on the Jukebox.

The network shows definite signs of catching on, though it’s still available in only 33 states. Maybe if they could make TVs that look like Wurlitzers…