The increasing demand for cable television content means the rise of more and more specialized networks to fill that vast, ever-expanding bandwidth. Interested in watching only programming that caters to your interest in professional horseracing, lawn-and-garden maintenance, or the specific sensibilities of Oprah Winfrey? There are now entire channels devoted to nothing but—all self-contained ecosystems existing far beyond the perimeter of mainstream TV, all populated by foreign civilizations of personalities harboring their own unique languages, value systems, and ideas of what constitutes entertainment. Most of these go completely undiscovered, happened upon only by an accidental slip of the remote and quickly fled after an exclamation of “What the hell am I watching?” TV Outland cuts a machete-swath through the TV thickets, and explores the strange indigenous tribes living just out of sight on your cable package.
The channel: As both MTV and VH1 shifted their focus to the secret lives of celebrities and screaming drunk people, Fuse emerged in 2003 under the slogan “Where The Music Went,” trumpeting itself in ads as cable’s last refuge for the music video. It was a bold stance to take for the former MuchMusic USA, which had operated since 1994 as a humble also-ran—simulcasting programming from Canada’s MuchMusic, airing localized and viewer-submitted videos, and even importing reruns of VH1 and MTV programming. But those networks’ slow abdication of their niche thrones created a vacuum that Fuse cleverly sought to fill.
These days, Fuse operates under the less combative banner of “Where Music Lives,” but the sentiment is the same: If you actually want to see music on your television, Fuse is your best bet. Of course, these days there’s barely need for a 24-hour music video channel, not when anyone can access the exact same clips on the Internet without wading through several dozen they don’t care about, or sitting through the toothless patter of VJs. And so, as Fuse continues to traffic in a service that’s increasingly obsolete, it’s found itself helplessly marginalized by the irrelevance that, in hindsight, MTV and VH1 deftly avoided. That’s inspired it to take chances on a couple of unusual programs that evoke its executives saying, “Well, no one’s paying attention anyway”—like MTV as filtered through UHF.
Target audience: Still, make no mistake: Fuse chases the sweet plum that is the 18 to 34 demo, and whatever supposed risks it may take in its original shows are easily overwhelmed by its strict adherence to popular tastes. In the beginning, Fuse celebrated its outsider status by digging up underexposed videos from a variety of genres, with a particular focus on punk, indie rock, metal, and their assorted sub-genres. Today, if you didn’t catch Lady Gaga’s “Marry The Night” or Snoop Dogg and Wiz Khalifa’s “Young Wild And Free” on their last go-round, sit tight—you’ll see them again within the hour.
That Top-40 rigidity becomes even more apparent as these same videos are repurposed in themed yet indistinguishable programming blocks—a repetition that can make watching a full day a real chore. Not that Fuse expects its audience to stick around that long: No doubt aware that most 18-to-34-year-olds are likely to happen across the channel by accident, or dip in sporadically out of boredom, Fuse always makes sure to play something they’ll recognize so they won’t immediately click away.
What’s on: Just as its mission statement decrees, Fuse really does dedicate the bulk of its schedule to playing music videos, annexed under various, ostensibly separate programs. Most, like Pop Hits, Hip-Hop Hits, Hit List, and All Nighter barely qualify as different shows—something you can maybe chalk up to hip-hop and dance-pop’s dominance of the charts, the blurring of lines between genres, or just the fact that Nicki Minaj is on everybody’s shit right now.
Occasionally the randomness of the rotation is reined in by countdown shows or artist-specific blocks such as Loaded or Fuse: Sexiest—the latter devoted, to borrow my AT&T Uverse description, to demonstrating why people like Katy Perry or Usher are “currently considered one of the best-looking musical performers, as their best videos showing off their physique and sexuality are counted down.” And sometimes a single artist’s physique and/or sexuality will even dominate an entire day’s worth of programming—like the recent Chris Brown: Takeover, which featured all of Brown’s videos, interspersed with interviews about how Brown isn’t going to listen to “negativity” about certain domestic-abuse trifles.
Fuse breaks up the monotony not only with its original interview shows, documentaries, and stabs at comedy and news, but also movies that are both related to music (such as the Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba), and not relevant to anything at all, except how presumably cheap they were to acquire (such as cross-dressing basketball comedy Juwanna Mann). Similar thinking seems to be behind its reruns of Don’t Forget The Lyrics and Last Call With Carson Daly, though at least the latter—along with Fuse’s partnership with various festivals and Vevo to carry live performances—provides some of the rare instances when musicians outside the Top 40 crack the airwaves. But otherwise, Fuse is essentially the same two or three dozen videos on shuffle and repeat.
The viewing week: Nowhere is this more apparent than on New Music Videos, which is akin to listening to the iPod of an ADD-addled teen with an itchy “skip” finger. To the show’s credit, it demonstrates a willingness to give just about any kind of (popular) music a shot—and unlike most other video shows, it helpfully keeps artist and title info on screen at all times, so you always know what you’re listening to. (Somewhat less helpful: The Pop-Up Video-style information bubbles, which offer dubious insights like, “Lil Wayne says the title of Birdman’s ‘Y U Mad’ should not be taken literally.” Then why am I so mad?)
Of course, this constant barrage of information is also out of necessity, as most of these New Music Videos barely last 20 seconds before they’re awkwardly trainwrecked into the next one. Sometimes they might be chosen due to their similarity in visuals, as when Kina Grannis’ “In Your Arms” smashes into AWOLNation’s similarly stop-motion-animated “Not Your Fault.” But more often it’s a totally capricious chain of, say, Adele into All Time Low into Trey Songz, all of whom are able to get a full verse and chorus in only if they’re lucky. For viewers who cling to the tradition of hearing entire songs—i.e., old people—it can be an exasperating experience.
On the other hand, at least New Music Videos has variety going for it, which is more than can be said for Top 20 Countdown. Here, the biggest videos of the day get their full moment in the sun—and more often than not, that moment can stretch for weeks upon weeks. Meanwhile, co-hosts Allison Hagendorf and Juliya Chernetsky spend two hours trying their damnedest to find something new to say about the same Beyoncé or Foster The People clip that’s likely already aired a dozen times that day, delving into recent artist interviews to find barely salient quotes, or offering up colorful yet totally irrelevant biographical anecdotes—anything to break up the Groundhog Day-like cycle of introducing “Pumped Up Kicks” for 20 straight weeks (which is not an exaggeration, by the way).
Both Hagendorf and Chernetsky have respectable backgrounds in the music industry—Hagendorf as a Sony A&R rep and music writer for Maxim, Chernetsky as the former co-host of various metal shows in Fuse’s early days—which is why it seems especially cruel to imprison them in a show so inherently devoid of personality. Hagendorf is also a veteran of scores of commercial voiceovers, and it’s those pitchman skills that are most called into play as she’s reduced to playing cheerleader, delivering all of her intros through a plastered-on grin and with a catch in her voice that suggests she could burst into laughter any second. Meanwhile, Chernetsky is forced to try and “sass” things up with flirty hand gestures and intimations that anything and everything—from the wall in Flo Rida’s home dedicated to holding his Air Jordan collection to Blink-182’s decision to shoot a video inside a mental hospital—is somehow “sexy.”
Fortunately for both them and the audience, Top 20 is where Fuse stages the majority of its artist interviews, which finally allow Hagendorf and Chernetsky to talk to and about someone different. The show attracts an eclectic mix to its sparse, public-access-evoking studio—actors like Elijah Wood and Jon Heder, musicians like Drake and Avril Lavigne, and even people who fall in between like Childish Gambino/Donald Glover—and both Hagendorf and Chernetsky have a chatty, easygoing style that breezes through obligatory questions about new albums into fluffy quizzes on, say, their favorite Halloween costumes or music video trivia. It’s rarely must-see stuff, but these moments are some of Fuse’s best claims on actively engaging with contemporary pop culture, rather than just trudging through it.
Similar to Hagendorf and Chernetsky, Hip-Hop Shop host Touré has an impressive résumé as an accomplished music journalist, essayist, novelist, and all-around cultural commentator. Yet just like his female colleagues, he’s saddled with a show that makes little use of his extensive background, tasking him with introducing a daily assortment of hip-hop clips based around dubious themes like “Collaborations” or, more tellingly, “What’s Hot And New.” Naturally, most of these “themes” have been chosen to accommodate the popular videos that are already in rotation, rather than the other way around.
It’s possible that this inherent superfluity discourages Touré, who—for all his extensive background in hip-hop—rarely attempts to add anything insightful or even critical. “He’s one of the hottest MCs right now and knows a good beat,” went one recent halfhearted intro—though that counts as expert appraisal compared to his introducing a Birdman video with, “Here’s Nicki Minaj wearing long blond dreads.” Most of the time, Touré maintains the same cheery, detached plasticity of a Time Life infomercial host pitching the sunny sounds of A.M. Gold, which makes his rare detours into tougher neighborhoods—praising the way a rapper “spits,” for example, or introducing a Young Jeezy song as a “rough one”—come off as unintentionally comical.
But as witnessed during the show’s live season finale in December, Touré comes alive when he’s allowed outside the video-jockey box, enthusiastically and knowledgeably interviewing buzz artists like A$AP Rocky and Big K.R.I.T. with a verve rarely glimpsed in his taped shows. That single episode was vibrant enough to make one wonder why the show’s producers don’t just stick with the live-performance-and-interview format that Touré is clearly more comfortable with, rather than making him introduce the umpteenth showing of B.O.B and Lil Wayne’s “Strange Clouds.” (“I think a lot of us have seen those,” Touré said recently as an intro and, perhaps, a cry for help.)
Fuse’s hiring of Hagendorf, Chernetsky, and Touré is part of the network’s admirable practice of hiring experts (telegenic ones, anyway) to headline shows about their chosen fields, a practice that’s echoed in one of its remaining imports from Canada’s MuchMusic, The Wedge. The recently revived series on indie and underground music is hosted by Fucked Up frontman Damian Abraham, whose knowledge of au courant bands runs secondary to his personal friendships with so many—and, more importantly, the license that gives him to talk friendly smack about them.
Of course, sometimes it feels as though Abraham is just dropping names to drop names, as when he introduces a Best Coast video by noting that he’s good friends with singer Bethany Cosentino and she’s “one cool-ass lady.” (Hey, is she also really nice? Yes.) And he’ll often—though admittedly charmingly—make artist interviews about himself, as when he quizzed Arcade Fire about what it was like to take those crazy guys in Fucked Up on tour. But such occasional indulgences aside, Abraham is one of Fuse’s most likeable and honest presenters, eager to admit when a band “isn’t really my thing,” and bursting with spontaneity rarely glimpsed on the channel.
“Spontaneity” is the exact opposite word to describe Fuse’s news coverage, which attempts to ape MTV’s coverage of current cultural events, minus all the timeliness and relevancy. Oddly, the Fuse website is relatively bursting with fresh content, featuring video segments that cover most of the biggest music stories of the day in an appealingly wry, often goofy voice. But for whatever reason, barely any of this ever makes it to your television. In a single week of watching Fuse, the only news segments I saw were the following, aired (again, without exaggeration) approximately 40 times apiece: a clip from a Red Tails junket interview with Ne-Yo, in which he offers praise for Jay-Z’s “Glory,” and another with Pregnant In Heels star Rosie Pope, in which she guesses how long it will take for Beyoncé to get back to her pre-pregnancy weight. It’s all so tangential and inconsequential, it only serves to make you feel sorry for reporter Dan Brown as he’s sent out into the cold to set this stuff up.
Fuse does better when it abandons all pretense of timeliness and focuses instead on a single artist, as in its documentary series Pop Profiles and Mad Genius. The former is especially fluffy, assembling the usual assortments of talking-head interviews with journalists and performance clips, and making for a show indistinguishable from hundreds of E! and VH1 specials. But Mad Genius takes a more personal tack, gathering band members, producers, record executives, friends, relatives, and fellow artists to discuss the likes of Alice Cooper, Lil Wayne, Britney Spears, or Slipknot’s Corey Taylor. (Obviously, your interpretation of “genius” may vary.) Neither show is unique, but Mad Genius in particular is a respectable entry in the overcrowded field of Behind The Music knockoffs.
Speaking of VH1-derived entertainment, the MuchMusic import Video On Trial shamelessly apes the likes of Best Week Ever and the I Love The… series with its rotating panel of comedians riffing on popular music clips. And though it’s structured, sort of, as a mock-courtroom show, where each clip is introduced as “The Accused” and the comics are asked to render a “Verdict,” it’s never stated what, exactly, these videos are accused of, nor is the “verdict” ever anything but an excuse to lob another non-sequitur insult like, “I sentence Joe Jonas to wear a flaming dress and burn in hell.”
The one thing that Video On Trial has that its contemporaries don’t is a true willingness to be nasty, both in the relentless scorn heaped upon every song and the sheer preponderance of dick jokes. But even with this ability to work blue and be bluntly honest in the mix, the show visibly struggles to be clever. For example, a video in which Beyoncé wears a Princess Leia-like hairstyle sparks such witty ripostes as, “I’d like to lay-a on those buns, and put my lightsaber in your Dark Side”—a ribald wit that would make them the envy of the world’s seventh-graders and bulletin boards. Or more uncomfortably, comic Eddie Della Siepe will spend an entire Selena Gomez clip proudly perving out about how he wants to “wrap her in a burlap bag and keep her in my basement.” (Ha ha?) And just as the show finds itself teetering on the edge of just sort of off-putting and totally obnoxious, that’s when the wigs come out.
Fuse’s other entry in the comedy genre, Funny Or Die’s Billy On The Street, is every bit as abrasive and sex-obsessed, and there’s a fair chance that viewers will find host Billy Eichner insufferable, much like some of the people he harasses on the New York streets. Eichner is loud, aggressive, and theatrical, literally running up to strangers and not so much asking as interrogating them with absurd, frequently uncomfortable questions that are often only indirectly related to pop culture. (The name of the show’s chief segment, “Quizzed In The Face,” says it all.) He’s intrusive, he’s impatient, and he’s also likely to throw a melodramatic hissy fit if contestants answer incorrectly, even if the question is, by his own design, absolutely subjective. In short, Eichner is really, really annoying. On purpose.
He’s also really funny—at least for those who appreciate the sort of comedy-as-act-of-terrorism shenanigans of Tom Green, and who enjoy seeing people shocked out of their daily routine and forced to answer stuff like, “True or false: Someday we’re going to feel really bad about how we’ve treated Meg Ryan,” “On a scale of 1 to 10, how boring is Reese Witherspoon,” or “For $1, name three white women you would fuck.” Even more effective than the promise of cash prizes (as well as the occasional sack of potatoes), Eichner bullies his subjects into playing along well past the point of reason, and it’s fun to see how seriously some will stop to consider, say, which male celebrity with a wig on is actually Dakota Fanning (Macaulay Culkin, naturally), all because he’s so intoxicatingly rude. And even better are the people who pull away and refuse to play—as when one woman barks “no” in response to a question about whether she’s watching Grimm, and Eichner runs off screaming, “Oh, but you should! It’s fairy tales with a twist! With a twiiiist!” It’s the sort of genuinely anarchic, unpredictable stuff you rarely see on TV, which makes it ideal for a nothing-to-lose network like Fuse.
Signature show: As much as Billy On The Street embodies Fuse’s potential, however, the channel’s current signature show—especially now that the bizarre Cee Lo Green: Talking To Strangers (And Implying That He Would Totally Do Them) appears to be on permanent hiatus—is another chatfest hosted by a moonlighting musician. Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus commands Hoppus On Music with the same sensibilities that have made his day-job punk band a hit—namely, a playful sense of humor and a quiet-loud-quiet dynamic range that often sees him creating the illusion of energy by SHOUTING THE ENDS OF SENTENCES. And much like Blink-182’s music, Hoppus On Music isn’t anything you haven’t seen before, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, has an infectiously propulsive tempo, and boasts enough hooks to keep it interesting.
Most episodes feature an artist—past guests include everyone from Gym Class Heroes to Noel Gallagher to J. Cole—dropping by to perform and chat with Mark, who gamely rifles through Internet-combed factoids like any good interviewer. But what sets Hoppus apart is his years of being on the other side, which means not only is he given to commenting on the inherent lameness of pressing bands for obligatory “crazy tour” stories (“Oh, here’s a nice generic question,” he’ll say with an eye-roll), many times he’ll end up comparing their stories to his own. And when they’re bands he’s actually friends with, this opens up even more opportunity for shit-talking—as when he gives the Foo Fighters guff for dressing in drag in their videos, only to have Taylor Hawkins reply, “Hey, at least we never ran down the street naked.”
Best of all, however, is Hoppus’ mock version of The View, in which he discusses music news with a random panel of artists, writers, and comics—Andrew W.K. and Pennywise’s Jim Lindberg, for example, or Mac Miller and Spin editor Steve Kandell. Hoppus has a knack for blunt, unapologetic snark (as when he dismisses Loutallica with “it sounds like fucking Guitar Center”), and it’s in these more understated moments when Hoppus isn’t visibly straining to create enthusiasm that the show is at its most charmingly loose. “Wow, you’re good at this, dude,” Dave Grohl said to Hoppus midway through the Foos’ interview. And yeah, surprisingly he is.
Defining personality: That loose, unpredictable quality that Hoppus and Eichner share—which is just short of a “we’re on public-access cable and probably only our friends are watching” attitude—could be the key to Fuse finally crafting a niche of its own. Unfortunately, right now they’re in a tied-game push-and-pull for defining personality with the rest of the network’s bland VJ pod people, who spend most of their day talking about music with all the bland, rote cheer of a QVC host peddling zirconium. Who will win?
Switching off: The fact is, while Fuse hiring unusual people to do unusual things hints at a promising direction, in the meantime, it’s hemmed in by its own ostensible reason for existing—the music video. Which is baffling: The music video has been around for decades, and currently thousands upon thousands of clips exist solely in the online ether or the fuzzy memories of the MTV generation. Even given the potentially prohibitive cost of licensing them for broadcast, you’d think that Fuse would still be able to rescue enough of them from obsolescence to have hours of unique programming, and attract all of the audiences who moan, “Remember when MTV stood for ‘Music Television’?” And, uh, wasn’t that the point?
As it is, music may “live” at Fuse, but it can hardly be said to thrive. The network’s commitment to devoting so much of its programming day to solely the most recent—and most overplayed—videos it can get only makes it all the more disposable. In fact, that strategy seems like an open acknowledgement that Fuse is meant to be nothing more than intermittent background noise, and that’s no way to cultivate a loyal audience—and it definitely doesn’t do justice to the moments on Fuse’s schedule that reward actually paying attention. The opportunity to claim that niche is certainly there. Otherwise, Fuse’s best shot at standing out might be following in MTV and VH1’s footsteps all over again and abandoning the music video altogether.