Skip to main content

VH1 Tries to Keep Time on its Side

Every seven seconds, another baby boomer turns 50 — and that's a point of data many find disturbing for deeply personal reasons.

So consider how unnerving that statistic is for VH1, the music network that claims to rank first among basic-cable channels in drawing upscale 18- to 49-year-old viewers: Tick tock, there goes another boomer, skittering off the demographic chart into the abyss and posing problems on Madison Avenue.

The census reports haven't been lost on executives at Viacom Inc.-owned VH1, which has increasingly focused on restructuring its management, rebuilding the programming franchise and refreshing that key demographic.

Though veteran John Sykes remains as president, the keys to the latest transformation are the new faces under him. Leading the pack is Fred Graver, named executive vice president of programming and production after Jeff Gaspin — the architect of VH1's reality-based programming strategy — left in March for a programming job at NBC.

In April, VH1 tapped Reggie Fils-Aime, previously chief marketing officer at bicycle manufacturer Derby Cycle Corp., as senior vice president of marketing. And in late June, it named Steve Tao as senior vice president of programming.

Tao replaced VH1 veteran Lauren Zalaznick, who tendered her resignation after a seven-year tenure. Tao toiled at Turner Network Television and before that at ABC, where he supervised the development of The Practice, Once and Again
and NYPD Blue.

And in August, VH1 hired a big-name journalist, Michael Hirschorn, as senior vice president of news and production.

NUMBERS POPPED UP

After years of languishing behind MTVN siblings MTV: Music Television and Nickelodeon, VH1 began to find its footing in 1996 with Pop Up Video, which got audiences to sit through a half-hour of old music videos with new jokes attached.

And in 1997 — also under Gaspin — the network minted gold with the deliciously gossipy Behind The Music, which in turn spawned a franchise of paparazzi programming. Suddenly, VH1 had a programming payday that helped it rise from the clutter and hold its own amid TV's increasing audience fragmentation.

VH1 emerged as an equal star in Viacom's hard-working stable of cash-earning networks. It experienced ratings increases and an equally important 15 consecutive quarters of growth in the adult 18-to-49 demographic, through January of 2000.

On Madison Avenue, media buyers seek out cable networks more for their audience demographics than their ratings. VH1's average viewer is 31, with an annual household income of $50,000.

Earlier this year, Myers Reports Inc. estimated that VH1 generated about $1.035 billion per rating point, ranking it No. 6 among all cable and broadcast networks. In 2000, its revenue was about $400 million.

Still, VH1's average primetime ratings have flattened, hovering in the 0.4 to 0.5 range in recent quarters. As a result, the network brass has taken steps to bolster its programming, looking to add more original fare, more music that reaches out to African-Americans and Hispanics, and place a greater focus on music from the last decade.

Some industry wags question whether VH1's cornerstone programming franchises —shows like Behind the Music— still have legs. Torrid tales of old rockers appeal only to old music fans, pundits noted, and VH1 needs another hit franchise to bring fresh eyeballs into the fold.

Graver disagrees. The network is always looking to develop a new hit, he said, but existing series have plenty of life left. And they're helping VH1 make the transition to a new generation of music lovers.

"It's like a parody of Tom Joad at the end of The Grapes of Wrath, " joked Graver, a former writer for Late Night with David Letterman. "As long as there are rock stars checking into rehab, dammit, we'll be there."

'IT'S ABOUT STORYTELLING'

More seriously, Graver maintained, it's not about the band or the era: "It's about the storytelling."

Two of Behind The Music's top installments this year were about rap stars. The Notorious B.I.G. episode on July 8 captured 1.3 million TV households, making it the show's ninth-highest rated premiere. The episode that focused on Sean "P. Diddy" Combs on Oct. 7 brought in 1.08 million households, the 17th-biggest BTM
premiere.

As VH1 rebuilds its lineup, BTM
and similar series like Storytellers
remain at the core of a $120 million programming budget.

"We're doing the math on who our audience is," said Graver. "We're recalibrating our approach. But the bottom line is that we tell really great stories that people want to hear."

Concerts and specials will also continue to be an important part of the network's schedule. The network recently enjoyed a significant ratings success with its Oct. 21 Concert for New York City, organized by VH1, Cablevision Systems Corp., Miramax Films and America Online.

The benefit concert — which to date has raised some $30 million for relief funds helping victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center collapse — garnered a 3.7 household rating and a 3.2 among the key 18-to-49 demographic, numbers that represented new records for VH1.

TAKE ME TO THE STUDIO

VH1 wants to create its own version of a live daytime video-music studio in Los Angeles, along the lines of MTV's Total Request Live
headquarters in New York's Times Square. Industry reports have indicated that VH1's version would likely house a 30-minute, four-day-a-week program that could launch this coming spring.

Graver said VH1 is prepping a new on-air identity that gives the network "a look like it lives in the same millennium as its viewers, a much more contemporary look." Further details — and some new programming initiatives — should be announced shortly, he said.

VH1 will also leverage its relationship with other Viacom properties. Although he declined to elaborate, Graver said the network is developing news programming, possibly in conjunction with Viacom's broadcast flagship, CBS.

Premium channel Showtime's The Chris Issak Show
will get a second run on VH1, starting Nov. 25. Ratings for the quirky drama-comedy haven't been impressive, but it's been largely lauded by critics. The deal calls for VH1 to not only rerun first-year episodes, but also to give heavy promotion to season two, which begins Jan. 6 on Showtime.

VH1 has also finished a summer initiative to build appointment viewing with a weekly primetime block of new and existing series under the umbrella brand, "My VH1 Primetime."

The strategy focused on theme-night programming on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and weekends. Additional destination nights are on tap for Tuesdays and Wednesdays.

"We feel it went very well," said Graver. "The ratings were good and very steady. They weren't burning the roof off, but they were steady."

VH1's "My Mondays" and What's My 20?
— which allow viewers to vote on VH1.com (www.vh1.com) for their favorite BTM
episode and music videos — stood out as hits, Graver said. Traffic to the "My Mondays" area of the Web site increased dramatically during the first two weeks the shows aired, nearly doubling visitors to VH1.com.

In just their first week, "My BTM" and What's My 20?
combined to register more than 10 times VH1.com's typical number of hits, Graver said.

VH1's second destination night — "Movies That Rock" on Wednesdays — has also shown promise. The Way She Moves, about a young woman who falls in love with her salsa instructor, garnered a 1.3 household rating and 1.2 million viewers for its Aug. 29 debut. The premiere, plus repeat, drew a cumulative 3.6 million viewers, 2.1 million of them in the 18-to-49 demo. Another original film, Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story,
garnered 4.5 million viewers for its July 18 premiere and same-night encore, including 3.6 million viewers in the 18-to-49 block.

A VH1 original movie based on BTM
star MC Hammer's life, Too Legit: The MC Hammer Story, is scheduled to air Dec. 19 and will be broadcast simultaneously on Black Entertainment Television, another Viacom outlet.

HAMMERING DOWN

All told, VH1 will air four original movies this season.

At least one cable-operator executive said she was confident VH1 could meet the challenge of diversifying programming and bringing in new viewers.

"Under [president] John Sykes's leadership, VH1 has done a great job in the past of reinventing and improving the network and we have confidence he'll continue to do what is necessary to keep the network relevant to its core audience," Charter Communications Inc. vice president of programming and pay-per-view Patty McCaskill said. "That core audience of boomers that grew up with rock music continues to grow. As time goes by, the music that is considered classic — and can be included — can also continue to evolve.

"The lineup can then include new groups that were once MTV [staples] but have been replaced by the new hot groups kids like today."