Applying Lear's lesson
VH1's programming chief looks to serve the audience online and on-air
By Allison Romano -- Broadcasting & Cable, 6/3/2001 8:00:00 PM
After six years of toiling for Late Night With David Letterman, Fred Graver thought he knew how to create good television. But it wasn't until he worked for Norman Lear's failed comedy Sunday Dinner that he learned the key to great television: playing to the audience.
Ten years later, VH1's new executive vice president of programming says Lear's lessons are still the most valuable.
"Sometimes when people are programming, they say, 'We're doing this for ratings, or for a trend, or for our branding and packaging.'" Graver observes. "All of those are important, but, ultimately, you have to come back and ask: What does the audience see?"
In May, VH1 President John Sykes tapped Graver, who most recently was executive producer of VH1's Web sites, to bring his intense audience focus to VH1's television side.
"Being at VH1 is like working at the record store in High Fidelity," says Graver, a self-described music fanatic.
Graver didn't begin his career in music or in programming. His roots are in writing, first at National Lampoon magazine and later on hit TV shows Late Night With David Letterman, Cheers and In Living Color.
"After 15 years on the other side of the desk, pitching to people, working for programming execs and working for channels and studios," he notes, "I know what it takes to get the best out of creative people."
Graver was a free-lance writer in New York when he met Gerry Laybourne, current chairman and CEO of Oxygen Media. Laybourne was at Disney at the time, laboring on new ways to integrate television and computers for children. Graver jumped at the chance to work on her experiment.
"So here are all these brilliant guys from MIT and Stanford and some of the people who had just built the Macintosh interface," says Graver, who majored in American studies and English at University of Notre Dame. "I was the comic relief. I was joke boy."
Graver's contributions were far from comical. He spent two years designing interactive programming that would connect Disney's online and on-air properties. His team created a four-hour weekend block for the Disney Channel that sent kids back and forth between the TV and the computer—and ultimately become the foundation for most of the channel's weekend schedule.
Graver craved a full-time New York position. In New York, he learned, there were cable nets ripe for Internet development, and he landed at VH1 in 1999, charged with building the network's Web site.
"The biggest challenge at VH1.com," he says, "was to get people at the network to understand that what we were going to build was a Web site first and a channel-marketing site second."
The Net has revitalized VH1's core TV audience of adult music fans, according to Graver. He wants VH1's programming to speak to their renewed, contemporary interests. "Our audience is still connected to music, still passionate, still curious. We have two tools to serve the audience, and we'll be looking at what they need online and on-air."
Graver points to last November's My VH1 Music Awards as a model for convergence. The program bucked the model for awards shows, giving VH1.com users the chance to select the award categories, the artists and the winners online months before the broadcast. The result: quirky awards ("Your Song Kicked Ass But Was Played Too Damn Much" award), new categories ("Double Threat" Musicians/Actors award) and strong ratings (15.2 million viewers tuned in during seven broadcasts, plus 24,000 unique visitors to VH1.com on premiere night).
He promises to continue popular VH1 shows, such as Behind the Music and Storytellers, while his team ferrets out new ideas.
"The challenge," he observes, "is to find new ways to show performance, new ways to show videos, and more ways to get the artist and the audience closer together."
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