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Music Television, Chicago Style

Competition's Coming/Michael Harnett and Jerry Bryant of JBTV

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JBTV--the locally produced weekly music video show--is about to find itself with competition in the form of a new program, Sound & Vision, partially produced by the well-connected (and financially imposing) Jam Productions. But that's only a distraction at this critical juncture in JBTV's evolution; co-owner Michael Harnett is more concerned with plans to turn the show into a 24-hour video channel. How are Harnett and his partners--David Gariano and eponym Jerry Bryant--going to do it? Nothing's firm yet; Harnett says he hasn't even finished the business plan for the $15-to-$30-million proposal. "It's a goal more than anything else," he says. But given the investor interest he's had so far--and the clever advantage he plans to take of certain changes anticipated in the cable industry--he's optimistic.

The show (which airs locally Saturday night at 11:30 on Channel 66) is the creation of the irrepressible Bryant, whose unapologetically hippie-esque look, informal interviewing technique, and vigorous support of alternative music gives the show its Zen, charm, and authority, respectively. Bryant is the nephew of the late songwriter Boudleaux Bryant, author with wife Felice of Everly Brothers hits like "Wake Up Little Susie" and "Bye Bye Love." ("My family practically disowned him," says Bryant. "They said, 'He's going nowhere, hanging out with those rock 'n' rollers.'") The younger Bryant grew up in Milwaukee, where he got a job at radio station WQFM as a teenager. "I was there at the right time and the right place," he recalls, punctuating the sentence with his distinctive, slightly manic staccato laugh. "Right after I got there the owner shot and killed himself. I was acting program director for three years before the station was sold."

But DJ-ing was only an avocation; Bryant was an audio engineer by training. "I still love the production more than being on camera," he says. He worked for a company called SuperSpots, which specialized in making radio and TV commercials for rock tours and radio stations. "They were like"--he falls into a booming radio voice--"'Black Sabbath! Pick up your tickets now! Blue Oyster Cult!'" He came to Chicago with the company in 1983.

JBTV's genesis came when Bryant was pooling through the video reels he was supplied with for his TV commercials. "Madonna would be on there, but later on in the reel there'd be Daniel Ash, or the Charlatans, stuff you'd never see even on MTV," he says. He started on a low-power station, Channel 13, broadcast from a Near North apartment. Eventually he moved over to Channel 19, the local cable access channel.

For a time in the late 80s Harnett also worked for SuperSpots, bringing in business with connections from his years promoting rock concerts, but eventually he left to form his own promotions company. In November 1990, he was channel surfing and happened on a Goo Goo Dolls video on Channel 19. When he saw that his old coworker was the show's host, he kept watching. "I thought, Who the hell are these bands? This is great!" he recalls. He called Bryant, and when SuperSpots went bankrupt in July 1991, he, Bryant, and Gariano (another ex-SuperSpots-er) took it over. At the same time they moved JBTV over to Channel 66.

Harnett and Gariano brought in key sponsors WXRT and Rose Records in early 1992. Since then the trio has taken the weekly melange of videos, in-studio interviews, and intimate live peformances seminational; JBTV is now on New York superstation WWOR and the Fox Net, hitting 38 states and reaching, the company estimates, 20 million households. The show gets 30 to 50 letters per week from outside Chicago, and as many locally.

The three are anxiously waiting to see how the cable industry will respond to a new set of governmental price controls. It's expected that cable companies will redefine "basic service" and force consumers to pay extra for many of the channels they now get free. MTV, which like other channels charges cable companies for the privilege of carrying it, could be one of these. JBTV's plan is to create a new 24-hour channel that supports itself by advertising and hence could be offered to the cable operators for free. Harnett figures that operators will be looking for ways to ameliorate the expected (and justified) consumer outrage the changes will bring. "I don't like the changes either, personally, but from a business standpoint I do," Harnett says. "To us it looks like a no-lose situation. MTV is billing $700 million this year. All we need is 5 percent of that. We don't feel that that's going to be too difficult."

JBTV's soon-to-be competitor, Sound & Vision, is being coproduced by Jam, Blake Carrsonn Studios, which owns Otis' and co-owns the Vic, and Golan Productions, which makes TV commercials and specializes in video projections at rock concerts. Harnett's already sent out the first competitive volley: a letter to label video reps warning, "We will be offended if artists that we have nurtured over the years appear on this program." Ari Golan, director and coproducer for Sound & Vision, says, "It's interesting that they're all bent out of shape about a program that hasn't aired yet. The cream rises to the top; the best program is going to win."

Sound & Vision debuts on Channel 50 at 1 AM Friday night, October 8, with live bits from Hothouse Flowers and an interview with Midnight Oil's Peter Garrett. Coincidentally, both of those bands recently played a free concert sponsored by 'XRT, which raises the question of where the station's loyalties lie. Golan hints that 'XRT may simulcast its shows on Sound & Vision. 'XRT program director Norm Winer couldn't be reached for comment.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J. Alexander Newberry.

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