MTV spinoff channel is a hit on college campuses -- mtvU's all music-video lineup favors bands not usually played on MTV

By Leah Greenblatt
Updated November 12, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

Tired of the bickering roommates on The Real World? Seen Usher make his ”Confessions” on TRL so often you’re beginning to feel like a Catholic priest working overtime? There’s new hope for the video-deprived music lover — but you’ll have to go back to school first. In an era when MTV and its once video-heavy offshoot, MTV2, showcase original series like Newlyweds and Pimp My Ride over straight music programming, mtvU, a 10-month-old MTV spin-off aired on roughly 750 college campuses across the country, now offers around-the-clock videos —think MTV at the dawn of the ’80s — from both indie and established artists.

Alas, as appealing as the channel’s progressive programming may be — rising stars like Talib Kweli, Jet, Interpol, and Sugarcult are currently in heavy rotation — no amount of pleading with the cable guy will bring it into your home. It’s available only via closed-circuit broadcast in dorm rooms, student centers, and other common areas on participating campuses. ”When we launched in January, we hoped to bring on 40 to 50 new campuses. But we’ve heard from over 700 campuses saying ‘We want the channel,”’ says mtvU general manager Stephen Friedman, who estimates that since its launch overall viewership has increased from 5.5 million to 6.2 million (nearly 3 million more viewers than tuned in for the Sept. 7 premiere of MTV’s Real World: Philadelphia). The appeal? ”It’s music coming straight out of the college scene that students can’t hear anywhere else,” Friedman explains.

Although it doesn’t bring music directly to the non-student masses, mtvU is wielding impressive industry influence. Because garnering blockbuster ratings is not a requirement (advertisers pay the bills), the station has freedom to grant airplay to under-the-radar acts like Scottish rockers Franz Ferdinand and Warped Tour heroes Coheed & Cambria with minimal financial risk. In some lucky cases, these bands, who would otherwise have little chance of landing on MTV’s skimpy playlist, become mtvU stars and eventually MTV buzz bands. Thanks, in part, to increased exposure after landing on mtvU, Franz Ferdinand’s eponymous debut CD has gone gold, and Coheed & Cambria is now a band on the verge.

”Coheed & Cambria had already established a following via shows and word of mouth, and they had a strong online fan base,” says LeeAnne Callahan, VP of video promotion for the band’s label, Columbia Records. ”But rotation on mtvU brought a visual element the band was missing, and the channel was immensely important in taking the group to the next level. It sort of all exploded from there.” Even for bands that don’t reach that level, mtvU offers other benefits. ”The Cut,” a feature on the channel, runs a prominent banner beneath certain videos directing viewers to free, legal downloads from the budding acts. They even launched the mtvU Woodie Awards this year and intend to expand the celebration in 2005.

Despite its out-of-the-box success, there are no plans yet to extend the joy off-campus. But the trickle-down (or, more accurately, up) effect of its programming on MTV and radio continues to grow as it expands to additional campuses nationwide. And for indie acts used to their CDs selling only a tiny fraction of what the Ushers and Eminems of the pop world sell in one week, that’s reason to celebrate. ”For so many years, there were not the possibilities that exist right now for some independent bands,” says Megan Jasper, general manager at Sub Pop — once Nirvana’s label and now home to the Postal Service and the Shins. ”But this creates an opening. And when there are openings for Modest Mouse, Franz Ferdinand, or Death Cab for Cutie, they’re paving the way for bands that are almost unheard of. How can we not be excited about that?”