Broadcasting the Beat
from London to Leningrad

by Joanna Norland


Peter Dougherty:
The Tunes (and Graphics) They Are a-Changin'

"Constant metamorphosis." That's the credo of his network, says Peter Dougherty, creative senior vice president of MTV Europe. When viewers tune into MTV, they expect to be jolted and surprised --- over and over again.

Hour-by-hour metamorphosis is also an operational description of Dougherty's job, overseeing the "look" of the fast-paced, high-energy music channel. On a given day, he might write memos specifying the requirements for a drug awareness campaign, meet advertising managers to discuss the needs of a new sponsor, approve a new MTV promotional clip, and vet the design of a T-shirt bearing the MTV logo.

It's quite a switch from Dougherty's former role as an MTV producer in New York, when he would sacrifice sleep for three days straight to write, record, edit, and videotape a 10-second promotional clip --- "which would then air a few times in a 36-hour period and wind up in the garbage."

Dougherty, an intense-looking, terse New York native, says that he sometimes misses working hands-on with videotape and editing equipment. The payoff, however, is that he can now engineer some of the innovations essential to MTV's identity.

He moved to New York City after graduating from Ithaca with a degree in political science. For a few years he waited on tables, spending his spare time helping his brother produce concert videos. "I'd carry around equipment and help with recording," says Dougherty, a lifelong music aficionado who vividly remembers attending a Beatles concert at age seven. "My brother and his friends had studied video at university. They produced their own videos for clubs that were installing video players in lounges at that time."

Dougherty's part-time interest became a career in 1982, when an acquaintance from the club scene offered him a job with the production department of MTV. "MTV was only a year old at the time, and cable was only in the suburbs, so I'd never even heard of it," Dougherty recalls. "I was amazed."

The production department is responsible for filling the gaps between music videos with promotions, programming panels, and social campaigns. These encapsulate the persona of MTV. Through the 1980s Dougherty contributed to this persona as he advanced from production assistant "answering telephones" to supervising producer of the New York office.

The first generation of producers established the company's unique style. "MTV graphics have always been rough around the edges, with an intentionally hand-made, tactile feel," Dougherty says. The use of the MTV logo, in particular, challenged broadcast orthodoxy. While most American networks regard their logo as sacrosanct, MTV animators treated their three-letter insignia as raw material with which to experiment. In promo after promo, they shrank, stretched, spun, distorted, and exploded the logo beyond recognition, before restoring it unexpectedly to its original form.

Subsequent teams of producers experimented in other directions. "You're always trying to outdo what has already been done," says Dougherty, whose work has earned an impressive list of honors in national and international film and broadcast festivals. "We worked with music editors who would mix eight pieces of music for a single promotion and producers who would take footage from the national archives and feed in voice-overs. [One producer] would mix animation with live action. [Another] would come up with insane scenarios."

The mandate to innovate became even more pressing when Dougherty joined the on-air department of MTV Europe in 1990. Suddenly the challenge was to design promotions and campaigns accessible to viewers who lacked a language or culture in common.

"In American promotions," explains Dougherty, "we'd have scenarios parodying kids' suburban lives and their parents. In Europe you couldn't do any of that, because there isn't any one scenario that would be relevant everywhere."

Were these limitations stifling? To the contrary, he says --- they spurred the team to create more abstract, stylized graphics. "In MTV Europe, design is the common frame of reference for our viewers. This works well because there is a strong graphic tradition in rock and roll."

Fortunately, he continues, European animators have the skill and creativity that a more abstract style requires. "In America animation usually means Saturday morning cartoons. In Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe, the animator is considered a fine artist, like a sculptor or a painter."

So Dougherty does not hesitate to make exacting demands of his crew. For example, in MTV Europe's latest project, a series of 10 one-minute films to be aired in the coming year, he has commissioned animators across the continent "to make films that don't depend upon an understanding of English and that can hold up to repeated viewing. There can't just be narration and a punch line. We need bizarre twists and hooks that viewers won't fully grasp the first time." The project, which is being cosponsored by a grant from the European Union, is only one of the changes planned for the coming year.

Now that MTV Europe has begun to broadcast three separate regional feeds, producers will have the freedom to use a variety of languages and cultural references. "The producers for the southern feed said that they wanted to celebrate Christmas in their promotions," says Dougherty. "They said that 90 percent of their viewers were Catholic, so the decision made sense. MTV Europe has never addressed Christmas before, because we didn't think it was universally relevant."

This might not be the sort of international diplomacy one typically practices 20 years after graduating with a degree in political science --- but then Dougherty made a conscious decision, early on, to give the unexpected a chance. "When I was at Ithaca," he says, "there was a real paranoia among students that after we graduated we'd be on the street and there would be no jobs for us. Students were abandoning the liberal arts to take business courses, but I knew that wasn't for me. I took a gamble, got a broad education in the liberal arts, and spent a few years waiting tables not quite knowing what the future would hold. The important thing for me is the idea that if one has a talent and a sense of one's interests and skills, one will eventually be able to make one's way."


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