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'Viva': Hosting Germany's Popular Challenge to MTV

On a weekday afternoon, the small lobby of Viva Fernsehen's headquarters is filling up with a group of about 20 teens. They've come to spend a few hours with an icon of teen-pop culture in Germany: Mola Adebisi.

Known universally as Mola, he is the VJ host of "Interaktiv," a popular request program that goes out live in the after-school time slot on Viva. The 24-hour music-video station is just one example of the many music television channels - and the youth-oriented culture that goes along with them - sprouting up around the world.

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After the teens are ushered into a studio, Mola enters and the kids applaud and cheer on cue. "I'd like to welcome you all to 'Interaktiv'!"

Mola was born in Uelzen in the German state of Lower Saxony but is of African heritage. (At one point during the show, he had to disentangle his microphone headset from his dreadlocks.) On the set, he comes across as the guy-next-door in an increasingly multicultural Germany.

As the name implies, "Interaktiv" relies heavily on callers - and writers. Today Mola reads a letter from a girl in Erfurt, in eastern Germany, which includes photos of the Brandenburg Gate and of her friends and some thoughtful observations on remaining tensions between eastern and western Germany, as well as an image of a poster opposing right-wing extremism.

"Something to think about, isn't it?" Mola notes approvingly, as he segues to the video she has requested, "Wnsch Dir Was" ("Make a Wish") by the popular German group, Die Toten Hosen.

One feature on the show's colorful set is a giant-sized set of fat red lips, which turns out to be the disguise for a fax machine. A ribbon of messages spills out of the lips as kids watching at home send messages on the "theme of the day." Today's theme is summer jobs.

Other kids use the fax to send in mash notes addressed to members of the studio audience who have caught their eye: "Please tell the third girl from the left in the top row that I'd like to hear from her, and my number is ...."

German television is divided into public television, funded by license fees on individual radio and television sets plus advertising revenues; and commercial broadcasting, which lives by advertising revenue alone. Viva, a commercial broadcaster, aims for the four- through 29-year-old group and reaches 22 million cable households in Germany, plus viewers in Europe via satellite. (Viva II, targeted to the 25-40 group, reaches 15 million German homes.) Viva Fernsehen as a whole expects to break even this year for the first time.

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A joint venture of Warner Brothers and EMI, Viva has provided some stiff competition for MTV. Long an English-only channel, MTV has recently introduced a German-language program, which it claims has caused a 150 percent surge in viewership - which Viva disputes.

A question about the cultural significance of Viva is met with polite chuckles. This is, after all, a country where "culture" means Beethoven and Goethe rather than something on television. But clearly, there are cultural values in a larger sense being inculcated here - multiculturalism, for one.

Sure, Viva "provides background music for everyday life," says Ill-Young Kim, the Korean host of a program called "Downtown" on Viva II. "But the ideal of multiculturalism is a dream for all humanity."

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