THERE IT WAS, A CHANCE ENcounter and perfect sound bite. Robert Tercek, then an MTV Asia promotions executive, was in Bombay taping a commercial when he felt a tug at his sleeve. Standing there was an Indian youth who insisted that he had to tell the world "what MTV has done for me." Cameras rolling, Tercek let Sanjay, 19, have his say. "Before MTV, I was like this," he began, his hands to his face like blinders. "Now it's like this," he said, stretching his arms to the sky.
That testimonial is echoed by many young fans in 241 million households planet-wide who tune in for the music and stay to watch "Free Your Mind" news features, interspersed between MTV'S main fodder of music videos and celebrity interviews. Often derided as a vapid, immature channel for rap-and- rock vidkids, MTV tackles serious problems in segments that range from three minutes to theme weekends. Promising viewers "free your mind and the rest will follow," the five international affiliates -- MTV Brasil, Asia, Japan, Europe and Latino -- cover issues like safe sex and the environment, once deemed too sensitive or boring for kids. Result: a following that comprises the same youths who rarely read a newspaper or watch their parents' TV news.
MTV'S special offerings for World AIDS Day on Dec. 1 display the sort of programming making MTV News popular. This is not the statistics and facts of conventional news; rather MTV mixes a little hip and a little hype to push news the young viewers can use. MTV Brazil next week will feature two segments, "Have You Tested for HIV+?" and "Hearing the Results," which explain how to get tested and how to tell others the outcome. MTV Europe offers the human angle, profiling a day in the life of a "Buddy," a young volunteer who cares for an AIDS patient. And Asian parents may recoil in shock when MTV Asia broadcasts safe-sex information to their kids from a Thai condom factory.
The straight-on attitude of earlier segments have had impact. India's Suditya Sinha, 13, reports he resolved not to buy anything made of mahogany and to use cloth bags instead of plastic after seeing an MTV Asia feature on deforestation. "I was horrified. I never realized things were so bad," he says. In Brazil 20% more youth (ages 16-22) voted in April's constitutional referendum than in the previous presidential election; MTV Brasil believes the boost is partly related to its "Plebescito" campaign, urging kids to vote "because the world is upside down and God is really busy these days."
The most challenged affiliate may be MTV Asia, based in Hong Kong and broadcast in English to 30 countries as diverse as Saudi Arabia and Mongolia. The region's conservative nature makes it harder to probe delicate issues, but that hasn't stopped the network. Despite Chinese reticence toward discussing politics, MTV Asia veejay Rita Tsang got Chinese and Hong Kong teens to express candid opinions in "Changing Hands," a segment about the crown colony's 1997 return to China, beamed by satellite and cable into about five million Chinese homes. " AIDS at Your Doorstep" covered the disease and safe sex -- a bold move in places like South Korea, where an official told the network "there is no AIDS because there are no gay people."