WORLD TOUR

During a recent 20-hour flight to Africa, Tom Freston, Viacom's co-president and corporate boss of MTV Networks, had plenty of time for reflection. A screen in the cabin of his corporate jet was showing its flight path over major cities, evoking memories of past trips. In Marrakech, the city in Morocco Freston had visited 10 times, he found a thriving "Rai" music scene. In Dakar, he'd caught a concert featuring Orchestra Baobob, masters of the Afro-Cuban fusion that was the pop music rage of Senegal in the 1970s. And now it was on to Johannesburg, where Freston would help launch MTV Base, the 100th foreign outpost of the American-born family of cable channels, and something that he had dreamed of for a decade. MTV had arranged a concert for 10,000 at a defunct drive-in theater, mixing African talent such as Seun Anikulapo Kuti, son of Nigeria's late Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, with U.S. exports Ludacris and Will Smith. Even Nelson Mandela, impressed with MTV's global HIV/AIDs campaign, offered his support via taped remarks. Freston beamed. "We were all over the world, except Africa," he said afterward. "It was the missing piece."

For all the fretting about outsourcing and trade deficits in the United States, MTV offers a high-end case study in how to export what seems, at first glance, to be a uniquely American brand. For 24 years, it's tapped into, and shaped, the genes of the irreverent, trendsetting, exuberant "MTV Generation." But it turns out to be an attitude without borders. MTV reaches more than 1 billion people worldwide, making it the most ubiquitous television network on the planet. Those aren't mere bragging rights--it's a big part of the business strategy for MTV's parent, Viacom. Sumner Redstone, its chairman, is now poised to split Viacom in two, a move likely this month, he told shareholders last week. One reason for the action: MTV Networks, with channels ranging from MTV and VH1 to BET and Nickelodeon, can show off its soaring growth once detached from CBS. "Now a large part of our future will be what happens outside the U.S., and that's exciting," says Freston, who'd run the stand-alone MTV company.

It's easy to understand the business case for MTV Networks' world tour. It reaches 87.6 million homes in America, but outside the United States, it's in more than 331 million homes, in 164 countries and territories, broadcast in 18 languages. Despite MTV Networks' huge global presence already, the U.S. arm accounts for fully 80 percent of overall revenue of $5.2 billion. So the real upside is clearly abroad. MTV Networks International is growing 20 percent a year, outpacing MTV's overall brisk pace. Freston would like to see it double to 40 percent.

Until recently, MTV International's formula has been to race into unchartered markets and be the first to plant a flag, through channels with broad regional appeal, like MTV Latin America and MTV Asia. Now it wants to turbocharge the strategy by expanding in a dozen key markets with more MTV Networks brands, like Nickelodeon, across a range of technologies, like cable, satellite, even over cell phones. "We just finished another plan... and international is in the DNA of every sentence," says MTV Networks CEO Judy McGrath, who runs the business day-to-day for Freston. The key to pulling off the strategy, though, is sticking with the winning approach of mixing universal youth sensibilities with local tastes. All that helps MTV avoid coming across as a cultural imperialist. One example is the hit U.S. show, "Pimp My Ride." In Germany, it's "Pimp My Bicycle." MTV Indonesia airs regular "calls to prayer" for its Muslim audience. Every outpost, which gets it own local stylized spin on the MTV logo, offers a window into that society. On MTV India, "you get a sense of the colorful street culture," says Bill Roedy, president of MTV International. "MTV Japan--a sense of technology edginess; MTV Italy--style and elegance."

To crack new markets, MTV has learned through the years that choosing the right ambassadors to sell the brand is half the battle. For years, Freston and his MTV vets tried but failed to overcome regulatory inertia to launch a channel in Africa. But then everything seemed to come together, including democracy taking hold across the continent, and economies opening up, which in turn attracts multinationals seeking new audiences (sub-Saharan Africa, which MTV Base is targeting, includes 48 countries with about 675 million people, and more than half of them are 19 or younger). Add to the mix an eager young executive named Alex Okosi, a U.S.-educated Nigerian who had once peddled MTV to cable systems in Wyoming. Okosi, 30, is now MTV's top executive in Africa, and is pushing his lean staff to fan out across the continent in search of more distribution and music-videogenic talent. As an African, Okosi knew enough to avoid certain mistakes. He saw each African country as a unique entity, instead of treating the continent as a homogenous whole. Okosi called on old acquaintances for help. To gauge the Nigerian advertising market, he enlisted a friend, the daughter of the owner of Nigeria's largest ad agency. He put up with travel that was hardly first class. "I'd be on the back of a motorcycle trying to get to a meeting through Lagos traffic," Okosi recalls. "It got a little scary." By the launch, Okosi had already signed up a big advertiser, Nokia. It intends to pitch the cell phone as a digital downloading gadget.

To build its empire--yet not come off as empire-builder--MTV is also acquiring homegrown businesses. Last summer, Viacom bought Cologne-based Viva, MTV's archrival in Europe, and plans to expand it elsewhere. In France, MTV also snapped up videogame network Game One, and has exported a version of it to Israel. "There aren't enough suitable acquisitions out there," says Roedy of MTV International. But after the MTV Base launch festivities, he headed off to Shanghai to close a landmark deal--an agreement to supply the first branded music service to China Mobile's 200 million subscribers. It came on the heels of yet another first: a joint venture with Shanghai Media Group to produce Ha Ha Nick, programming for children.

Viewers may tune into MTV for the music and reality shows, but an equally important audience to MTV is advertisers, who see it as a huge platform--a stage for all the world--to market almost anything. This weekend, on the eve of the release of Coldplay's highly anticipated album, MTV will air "MTV Live--Coldplay" worldwide. Microsoft used MTV too, to launch its new Xbox game player to a global audience. Marketers, it seems, are hooked. "MTV is as much a culture as a medium," says Jeffrey Frost, Motorola's global brand officer. With such fans, Freston won't mind the jet lag.