Cover Story

NEXT BIG PROMO TOOL: THE BOX

THE 411 ON URBAN MUSIC'S HOT ALTERNATIVE TO MTV

Ice-T's sitting room offers plenty of distractions. Piled high on the shelves are horror-movie toys-Freddy Krueger dolls, goodies from Hellraiser. And the view from his Hollywood Hills aerie is A+ spectacular-the entire L.A. basin and, farther west, the Pacific. Yet the main attraction is a huge television, tuned, as always, to The Box, the 24-hour music-video channel whose playlist is determined exclusively by phoned-in orders from viewers. While Ice-T watches The Box from L.A., Sir Mix-A-Lot pulls in the channel from his satellite dish in Seattle. Cross-country in Manhattan, Lisa Lisa tunes it in on one of her five TV sets. And deep in the heart of Texas, the Geto Boys' Bushwick Bill says he tells his ''homies in the 'hood that The Box is the station to watch.'' And they aren't alone. This upstart channel has clearly emerged as a major player-the first viable challenge to behemoth MTV, which now faces more competition from the EMI-PolyGram-Sony-TicketMaster- Warner music-video channel set for a fall launch. A computer-age version of a beat-up, beer-stained jukebox in a corner dive, the Jukebox Network (as The Box was originally called) began as a local experiment in Miami in December 1985, and went national four years later. It now reaches 18 million U.S. households with the help of 160 ''boxes'' (outlets), each of which offers a selection of videos tailored specifically to the market it serves. New York City, for example, is serviced by 11 separate boxes. Choosing from an on-screen menu of up to 350 videos, viewers order their favorites by calling a 900 number and punching in a three-digit code. The clip is shown approximately 20 minutes later, with a viewer charge ranging from 93 cents to $3 per selection. Last year, The Box processed more than 6 million calls. ''Other stations actually dictate what people should be listening to,'' says Luther Campbell, member of 2 Live Crew and owner of Luke Records. ''That ain't no different than a Communist country telling you, 'Hey, this is what we want you to see and this is what you ain't gonna see.''' Although The Box also offers rock, pop, and country clips, it has cornered the market on rap and R&B (or urban) videos-through MTV's default. While major crossover artists like Snoop Doggy Dogg and Salt 'N' Pepa get heavy rotation on MTV, the 14-year-old channel has been accused of ghettoizing urban music, relegating it to such specialty shows as Yo! MTV Raps. Most hard-core rap videos don't air at all, and those that do-like Ice Cube's ''It Was a Good Day''-are often edited to exclude risque or violent scenes. ''Some other video channels might not want to play your video because of your ethnic background,'' says K7, whose single ''Come Baby Come'' reached No. 42 on Billboard's R&B chart as a result of Box exposure, ''but The Box automatically gives the opportunity to more minorities.'' ''The timing was perfect for us,'' says Les Garland, The Box's executive vice president (and MTV's original programming VP). ''MTV had turned their heads on rap, BET (Black Entertainment Television) hadn't woken up to it yet, and nobody else played it. And it was what the audience wanted to see.'' Of the channel's 20 most-requested videos in 1993, 13 were rap and 6 were R&B. But can The Box compete with MTV when it comes to breaking acts? Just ask SWV, Digable Planets, Onyx, Shai, Dr. Dre, Snow, Domino, Spice 1, Naughty By Nature, Sir Mix-A-Lot, and 2 Live Crew (even nonurban artists like 4 Non Blondes and Green Jell )-all groups that, The Box claims, were getting nowhere on MTV or radio. ''The Box had a tremendous impact on SWV's multiplatinum success,'' says the group's manager, Maureen Singleton. Barry Weiss, senior VP and general manager of Jive Records, agrees, calling The Box ''absolutely vital. I would say they're accountable for 50 percent of the sales of the Spice 1 album (187 He Wrote, which went gold).'' There has been some speculation that the publicity staffs of record labels speed-dial requests for their own artists' videos. Labels won't confirm this, but The Box execs admit it probably does happen. ''What would stop anybody from doing it?'' asks Lois Schmatz, The Box's public-relations director. ''But they would have to make thousands of calls to have a real effect. Besides, one call only gets the video into one system. They'd need to put their video in every system, and dial all the various 900 numbers in the country, to accomplish what they'd want.'' (One new way for labels to guarantee airplay for their clips is to buy airtime. But these videos register as advertisements rather than plays, and are not included in viewer-request tallies.) Whether The Box will actually cut into MTV's business remains to be seen. For now, the industry welcomes their coexistence. ''One has the reputation for being a street channel, and one is more a station for the masses,'' explains Daniel Glass, president and CEO of the EMI Records Group (ERG). And both channels claim that they don't see the other as head-on competition. Says Garland, ''We're a music channel in the purest of forms, with 24-hours-a-day videos. MTV isn't so much that anymore. They're more lifestyle.'' ''We are about and we'll always be about music-first, second, and third,'' counters Carole Robinson, MTV's senior VP of press relations. ''You'll never see less than 80 percent video music weekly.'' But Robinson admits that ''there may be a perception that there's less music programming on because our shows are what get the attention these days. It's not news that MTV plays music videos.'' And with MTV's recently announced plans for entering the home- shopping market, that perception is only heightened. What does distinguish MTV from The Box, says Robinson, is that ''we're really in a different business. Competition to us is the networks, movies, video games-anything our audience does with leisure time. Subscribers requesting videos is not how we make our money. MTV is an advertiser-supported network.'' That distinction may soon be invalid. Even though The Box had its strongest year in '93, it's still in the red-estimated net losses for '93 are approximately $2.3 million, down from $4.8 million in '92. However the channel's ad income has jumped dramatically from $3.7 million in '92 to $4.2 million in '93. That's a far cry from the $482 million MTV Networks (including VH1, Nick at Nite, and MTV Europe) grossed in the first three quarters of '93, but a start toward making The Box profitable. ''The growth we'd like to see,'' says CFO Luann Simpson, ''will be in ad revenue.'' Even with an audience only one third of MTV's 58.3 million in the U.S., The Box ''is the way smart people are marketing urban music in the '90s,'' says Jive's Weiss. And because its viewer-selected hits signal a strong fan base that often predicts mass popularity, more and more record companies consider the channel invaluable. ''You can tell what's going to happen, because if these kids are spending $2.50 to request a video, and it's getting heavy requests, it's a hit,'' says Alison Bandier, ERG's director of media promotions. ''It's the temperature for what's going on in the streets.'' The labels are not the only ones checking The Box to gauge success. ''I get a little leery if my stuff's not being played,'' says Sir Mix-A-Lot, ''because that probably means that you won't be around long. If people aren't paying to see it, they won't pay to hear it.''

Originally posted Feb 18, 1994 Published in issue #210-211 Feb 18, 1994 Order article reprints