Music Television: Hitting a Sour Note?

Let's face it, music television is terrible nowadays.

At least so say some critics who argue the airwaves are filled with pubescent, prepackaged pop sensations who know midriffs better than song riffs. And in the meantime, they say, artists with more talent but less marketability are left to fester in grungy bars.

"I think that it's all to do with the people out for the image, looking all neat and tight and young and taking all your clothes off for MTV and VH1," Pennsylvania singer Neysa Ricciardi said. "It's harder to have your music distributed on a wide scale if you have something to say than if you're a teenager with a bellybutton ring."

The main choices for music lovers on TV are MTV, MTV2, VH1 and BET, which have been criticized for playing the same videos over and over again, like Jennifer Lopez's "Jenny on the Block" or Christina Aguilera's "Dirty."

Officials at the music networks said that's hardly a fair characterization.

"I think people still think we're playing Britney Spears every five minutes when, in reality, we're making a definite effort to lean towards rap and hip-hop," said Eric Calderon, MTV's senior vice president of talent and music.

But he also admitted Justin Timberlake, Spears, Aguilera and their ilk have had their share of face time on TV.

"The bottom line is this, that we're still feeling some of the halo effect of the pop explosion from two years ago," Calderon said. "The image we have is like a glacier -- long to form and long to erode."

Some critics say that more limited playlists are merely a result of music television's success.

"As MTV especially got bigger, like with many things, the stakes got higher and higher," said Geoff Boucher music critic for The Los Angeles Times. "That makes people take fewer chances. It's a testament to their success as much as it's a criticism."

BET corporate communications director Robert Santwer said that independent musicians in fact do get a chance to showcase their talent, especially on shows like 106th & Park, because of the still local nature of rap and hip-hop. Artists like Master P, for example, develop a following in one region of the country and often eventually get noticed by the show's song selectors.

"It's like a baseball farm team," Santwer said on the set of the show on a day that saw visits from both longtime rap celebrities like Ice Cube and newer, relatively unknown hip-hop artists.

"We give artists a chance that no one else does," he said separately in an e-mail. "We don't just take prepackaged stars, either. Our playlists are open to any artist that can produce a hot song and a good video."

Calderon said that's also the case with MTV, which he pointed out has brought national attention to formerly little-known bands like the White Stripes, The Hives and Nappy Roots.

"When we got the White Stripes video, even though we'd played 'Hotel Yorba' prior to that, no one knew where we were going with it," he said. "We just thought it was a neat song and a cool video, and we made the White Stripes a buzzword."

But naturally, not every aspiring artist will make it onto TV. Calderon added that it's important to MTV that their videos are popular with a large portion of the audience.

"We've got to play stuff people want to watch," he said. "But our plan is to follow up a big video with something no one has heard about, like The Exiles or The Used."

Back in Pennsylvania, though, Ricciardi thinks her songs are something many people would enjoy listening to -- but isn't optimistic that she'll ever have the chance to play it for them. Instead, she's mainly playing at local clubs in Baltimore after more than 20 years as a musician.

"You put music and money together and you get something very different from just music," she said. "I think money has to be a consideration, but I also think there are people over 15 who listen to music and want their kind of music to be produced."

But music experts say people have to realize that music television is a business and has little choice but to walk a thin line between risk and stability.

"The [channels] aren't as eclectic or prolific video players as many of us would like," said Boucher. "But they are in the business of making money ... They take some risks, but it's not like public radio where you can play 20 or 30 songs by new artists and see what people like."