Taking a Cue from MTV, the Networks Roll Out Rock

To the beat of Cyndi Lauper’s hit Girls Just Want to Have Fun, the camera follows a shapely transvestite killer stalking his/her prey at a seaside resort. Spliced into the sequence are tight shots of a volleyball game on the beach. Tracking the swaying curves of the killer and darting among the sleek bodies at the net, the cynical camera moves to the pace of Lauper’s loopy anthem. The sequence has the look, the sound, the texture of a rock video. But it isn’t.

Instead it is a segment from Miami Vice, NBC’s Hill Street Blues knockoff that debuted last month. Throbbing with rock-and-rhythmic camera work, the weekly drama is in the vanguard of network series that have begun to move to a name-brand beat. Its detective heroes dress to Devo, cruise to Phil Collins and fight crime to the Rolling Stones. As executive producer Michael Mann observes, “Miami Wee and MTV are really first cousins.” Adds composer James Di Pasquale: “There is no question that the marriage of television and rock is getting more romantic.”

Indeed it’s beginning to look like an affair to remember. While Morgan Fair-child once did her small-screen emoting against generic background music, in ABC’s new Paper Dolls she has Michael Jackson’s music as an aural backdrop, and on NBC’s Knight Rider KITT the car foils villains while John Cougar Mellencamp rasps Crumblin’ Down. Rock singers are also proliferating as prime-time protagonists. On CBS’ Dreams, a series that is really an excuse to showcase videos, actor-singer John Stamos plays an aspiring young bandleader blasting through an MTV-style concert sequence each week. Fresh from his No. 1 hit, Missing You, John Waite last week joined the cast of Paper Dolls as a rock star for a two-episode run. When Waite and his entourage arrived on the set it was “chaos, like when two worlds collide,” recalls the rock star. The two-day shoot called for “lots of striking poses and looking moody,” reports Waite, who played himself and shot a mock rock video with series regular Nicolette Sheridan. Even Southfork ranch could be swinging soon: The producers of Dallas are reportedly searching for an appropriate pop singer to play a rocker-turned-oil-business-interloper.

As prime time goes pop, so does its look and pace. The dreamlike montages, quick cuts and cinema-slick production values that characterize MTV videos are cropping up not only in series but also in such TV movies as the recent Single Bars, Single Women. “You’re seeing more and more shows that license pop songs and edit the images to the music in the same way we cut a spot for MTV,” observes Beth Broday, president of Fusion Films, the L.A.-based video-production specialists who produced one song sequence for Dreams. According to NBC exec Michael Levine, Miami Wee writers will be developing story ideas around existing music videos—expanding the three-minute scripts to accommodate the show’s heroes.

MTV isn’t this trend’s only catalyst. The appeal of Flashdance and Footloose has the networks on their toes, too. “Television most often behaves like a kid sister of the movie industry and follows its lead,” observes Di Pasquale. Says J.A.C. Redford, St. Elsewhere’s chief orchestrator, “Using pop is a way for TV to dress up a show and make it seem contemporary.”

TV has frequently used popular music as a tool—or, in some cases, a crutch. With pop singers in the title roles, the Partridge Family and the Monkees were major successes in the ’60s and early 70s. But now a Hollywood generation teethed on rock has emerged. “These series are getting crews that understand how music and visuals can work together,” Broday notes. “In the next few years you’re going to see a crop of directors, writers and cinematographers who have done a lot of rock videos and are likely to take that sensibility with them into movies and TV.” Even some symbols of past pop eras are turning up. NBC has signed former Monkee Michael Nesmith, an acclaimed video producer, to create a probable midseason replacement series tentatively titled Video Parts. The show will feature polished videos, serious and farcical.

Using rock on TV has its risks. “You can turn off a certain age group if you decide, ‘Okay, I’m going to score this Top 10 wall to wall,’ ” warns Santa Barbara music director Dominic Messenger. “You want people to focus on the show, not the music.” But choosing the right song can result in an unchained melody. When Messenger was working on General Hospital last year, Christopher Cross’ Think of Laura was adopted as a theme for star-crossed lovers Luke and Laura. Because the song worked so well “they were able to cut pages and pages of dialogue,” he says. “Instead we could go with montages of Luke and Laura looking sad, which was more effective.”

Christopher Cross found a shortcut to success too. Although it flopped when first released in early 1983, Think of Laura became a smash shortly after the soap appropriated it. And four minutes of airtime on Miami Vice worked a similar miracle for Phil Collins’ In the Air Tonight. After the show’s debut it became the most requested song on Miami’s top rock station almost overnight and climbed back on the national charts after a three-year absence.

Still, image-conscious artists aren’t always eager to peddle their wares on TV. “Christopher didn’t want General Hospital to play Think of Laura, because he’d written it about a friend who’d died and he was embarrassed,” Warner Brothers exec Liz Rosenberg remembers. “He wouldn’t even watch the show.” When Paper Dolls used the Eurythmics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This) in its promos, the exposure hit a sour note with band members Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart. “The Eurythmics never would have approved, nor did they have any knowledge of, their being exploited in this manner,” contends Gary Kurfirst, one of the band’s managers. Since deals are struck with the songwriter’s publishing company, not the singers themselves, performers might not know of their prime-time promos in advance.

What you hear is not always what you get on these shows. Like many other producers, Paper Dolls’ Leonard Goldberg bought the rights to the song. Then he had it sung by imposters: a soundalike band. Because the cost is only a fraction of what the originators might charge, soundalikes are frequently employed. Industry experts estimate that the typical rock recording costs $3,500 for a single use, if purchased from the original artist. While licensing fees paid to songwriters usually run from just $200 to $2,500, the performers can command much more—and receive additional fees with each rerun. Miami Wee (whose producers paid a reported $10,000 for the Rolling Stones’ rendition of Miss You) is one of the few prime-time series that uses nearly all original recordings. That might have sounded like Dionne Warwick singing Déjà Vu on Glitter, but it was really Sally Stevens.

The crossover possibilities for rock performers have not gone unnoticed by their promoters. The creators of Dreams arranged for CBS Records to release an eponymous LP next month. Says Dreams’ Stamos, “Let’s face it, the series is also about selling records. Every week 14 million people can watch and listen to our videos.” According to composer Redford, “The reason there is so much rock on current programs has a simple explanation. It is green, rectangular and has a President’s face on it.”

Ironically the MTV-ization of prime time has concerned one flattered onlooker: MTV “It scares me because suddenly rock is everywhere,” says Vice-President Les Garland. “You see soap operas, series and sports events being promoted with rock music. Rock has always had a mystique because of its scarcity. It isn’t—and never really has been—for the masses.”

But with the arrival of stereo TV, the screen of the future may well be rock around the clock. “There’s a magical thing about music,” says John Waite. “It can change lives and touch people like nothing else can. To combine the power of visual images with it—it’s got limitless possibilities.”

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