Club TV

South Beach, prepare for your closeup. No, this isn't a still-shot photo-op or a glossy fluff-filler interview. Finally, the internationally known nightlife stage that is Miami Beach will get consistent cable face time as Alternative TV-3 broadcasts to the camera-ready residents of South Beach. Billed as a "dance-music video and progressive nightlife channel," a3 will occupy seven hours of airtime (11:00 p.m.-6:00 a.m.) featuring all the drumming bass, fashion glitter, neon lights, and quirky personalities that make up our commercially hyped nightlife.

"Essentially what this program is designed to do is tell anyone who's watching to stop watching [a3 will initially broadcast to 12,000 hotel rooms and 80,000 homes] and get to whatever party we're showing," declares co-developer and 93.1 FM (WTMI) promotions director Buster Cox.

It's midafternoon on a sweltering Saturday over Labor Day weekend. The Beach simmers with a suffocating energy that will peak when Danny Tenaglia takes the tables at Space and Ludacris rocks the mike at Level. Women in less than bikinis and guys thuggin' out with do-rags and mini-cams mill about Ocean Drive's festival of skin and sun.

"See, this is the scene. These are the characters," points out On Board Media's Dave Mardini as he glances around the swaying palm leaves at Café Cardozo to glimpse a group of well-toned and deeply tanned girls strutting down Twelfth Street. "What we're aiming to do is give everyone their fifteen minutes of fame."

Other projects have tried the same, most recently WAMI, but as Mardini points out, past ventures have failed due to an attempt to be "all things to everyone." Focus will be the key to a3's success.

Together Mardini and Cox have decided to combine their years of club-hopping and music promotion into one ambitious project that intends to jump-start a national trend in underground-culture television. Cox once worked for club guide Ego Trip and Mardini toured with Guns N' Roses, so the duo has experience. Countless film crews have flown in to document the nocturnal habits of Miami's guests and hosts, but never before in the United States has a channel been solely devoted to the sound and style of the electronic music/club scene.

"What we're doing in Miami we hope to take across the country," Mardini explains. "Whether it's Atlanta or Las Vegas or New York, we're going to broadcast the dance-music scene and show what's not being shown on VH1 or MTV in terms of videos and culture."

Cox intervenes to lay down the party line: "If it's cool, we'll show it," he says of the music videos (from Paul van Dyk to Tiesto) that will form the backbone of the programming. "And once it's on VH1 or MTV we're yanking it."

It's a cool idea, but will it fly? Europe has been able to capitalize on the commercial success of dance music, but the United States has lagged behind. Instead the States have become the undisputed creators and promoters of R&B and hip-hop, but with that sound's overexposure and a "what next" attitude among producers, is it time to switch gears?

"Hip-hop doesn't need our help," Cox says. "What we're going to do is shed light on a scene that's expanding here but hasn't been given much commercial attention."

As Cox notes, Party 93.1 is the first corporate-supported dance-music radio station in the United States. Mardini adds that raves are now eclipsing bands like Metallica in ticket sales. Clubs and DJs are going from flavor of the month to main course, and a3 has its cable sights set on being there when it's served.

"Miami is currently the number-one market in the United States for dance music so this city is the ideal place to launch," Mardini theorizes. "We have a long-term contract with Charter Communications, so it's not like we're going anywhere."

"Both Dave and I love our day jobs and we're not looking to get rich off this," Cox interjects. "We're doing this because we love parties and we love Miami."

The trick now will be to avoid turning this underground culture into a Wild on E!-type festival of booze and breasts. Sex is as much a part of South Beach as the sun and ocean, but there is an important music scene being cultivated here and to diminish Miami's base of bass would be a shameless commercial move.

"What we're about is doing what MTV used to do twenty years ago, and that's play videos no one else is playing," Mardini explains. "In between, we want to bring the cameras into the clubs and actually do something. Like taking a guy who is last in line at Mynt and make him VIP for a night. Eventually we'd like to have setups in other cities where we can check in with someone in Vegas or New York and have reports about what's going on in their clubs."

This concept (shining on the low-lit nightlife scene) brings up the inevitable question of what will happen should the camera catch something it shouldn't.

"Won't happen," Cox says with conviction. "We're going to be very clean. Dave and I are very proud of the fact that we have good relationships with all the Miami clubs and their owners. We'd never do anything to jeopardize that."

There will be time for a little kink, though. Knowing well the drawing power of Miami's strip joints, a3 will feature a segment called After Midnight that will take its cue from Playboy Channel's popular Sexcetera. This shouldn't hurt the sponsorship that will be coming in via record labels and liquor companies, who are logical picks to test the advertising value of the program.

"Style and music, fashion and culture all begin in nightclubs," Mardini says. "We're just making it visible as it's happening."

Expectations are high, but reality says a trial-and-error period is in line. Selling South Beach takes more than a perfect martini and the right Armani suit. Look for the young channel to find its legs over the fall season but to hit full stride come March and the mountaintop that is the Winter Music Conference.

"By then we hope to be established enough where we can broadcast 24 hours a day for those two weeks," Mardini says.

"I'd say, realistically, within ten years you're going to have a significant amount of knowledge and information concerning progressive culture coming from television," Cox adds. "We just have to stay five steps ahead of any other commercial outlet."