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MTV’s new breed of awards show

By Richard Nieva, reporter

The Flaming Lips
FORTUNE — As award show tributes go, it seems only fitting to honor Steve Jobs in one that would be watched on an iPad rather than a television. That is what the Flaming Lips did last week during a memorial for Apple’s iconic co-founder at the MTV O Music Awards, an irreverent ceremony streamed online but not aired on television.

The music and lifestyle network has long banked on awards to bring in audience and big advertising. Now, it’s testing the waters with something different. MTV O is a new breed of awards show says Dermot McCormack, EVP of Digital Media for the MTV Networks Music & Logo Group. Though it features the punch lines and musical acts of the conventional awards show, what makes it different is not just where it’s watched — but how its success will be measured.

McCormack says the show’s buzz in the socialsphere — the number of times it was tweeted, the amount of Facebook shares — is more telling than traditional metrics such as Nielsen data. “The fundamentals of the audience have changed. They’re talking back,” says McCormack, referring to an increasingly interactive experience for online viewers. “Essentially what you’re doing is measuring people’s attention.”

The event, held in Los Angeles on Halloween, was a celebration of all things Internet, with award categories like “must-follow artist on Twitter,” “digital genius” or “fan army FTW.” (FTW is Internetspeak for “for the win.”) Fans voted by tweeting and Facebook-sharing their picks. The show was a one-hour web 2.0 block party, held at a closed intersection in West Hollywood. Celebrities presented and winners accepted via webcam. Viewers could watch on the show’s homepage,

The show did quite well when measured against its nearest yardstick — itself. Another sign of its off-center nature, the show has no regular run cycle. The first ever ceremony was this past May, and organizers waited just five months to do a second one, instead of making it an annual event. Across the board, figures were up: 1.1 million live streams, up from 651,000. Eleven million votes cast through tweets, up from 1.5 million. Facebook posts are harder to compare because they recorded use of the “like” button last time, while focusing on the “share” button this time. Users were allowed to vote as much as they wanted.

The one stat missing is perhaps the most telling: the number of tweets that don’t concern votes, like the ones that reference certain points in the show and really gauge user audience engagement. The show has created that engagement a few times in the past, generating trending topics on twitter like #RapWorldRecord from the first show, when recording artist Chiddy Bang freestyle rapped for over nine hours.

Even more of a goldmine for advertisers would be the amount of tweets that are about products advertised during a stream (something like “Wow, cool commercial.”), says Charlene Li, analyst with the Altimeter research group and coauthor of Groundswell. If companies can create an online environment that’s conducive to that sort of tweet, then that’s where Internet streaming might eventually have an edge over television. “What they lack in volume, they make up in quality,” says Li. MTV declined to disclose its rates for advertisers, which included Dove, Trojan and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Xbox division.

It’s clear, though, that for this system of metrics to become respectable, it will take time to mature. “We know what a television viewer means, from fifty years of experience,” says Li. “With this, it’s only been a few years.” For now, it’s difficult to judge success by a blanket number of Internet posts because there is not much of a precedent for how many posts a successful program should get.

McCormack acknowledges that MTV’s revenue is clearly still driven by the juggernaut TV platform. But if anyone can help Internet programming grow up, it may well be the company who fortified the music-centric TV network and the reality television show. Still, Flaming Lips Frontman Wayne Coyne admits the stakes are lower on the Internet. “There’s no pressure,” he says. “No one really cared what we did. They said ‘Do it. It’ll be fun.’”