Beyond Behind the Music

A refreshed VH1 looks forward to the upfront

VH1 is coming out from Behind the Music. After bleeding ratings for more than two years, there's fresh programming at the Viacom-owned music channel, and, with the upfront approaching, the timing couldn't be better.

"Audience has come back. Our advertisers are back. We're in a healthy position to advance," said General Manager Christina Norman.

VH1's prime time ratings, though still middling for cable, increased 33% to a 0.5 in the first quarter, according to Nielsen Media Research. Its marks had dipped as low as a 0.2. Corporate cousin CMT: Country Music Television (see article below) also is growing these days, but, as one of Viacom's newer acquisitions, it's taking cues from older kin VH1 and MTV.

At VH1, there are two rules these days: Branch out programming as long as its rooted in music, and keep a constant flow of fresh shows.

Under this edict, VH1 is being programmed with a mix of music, artists and pop culture. Some shows, like The 50 Greatest Hip-Hop Artists, showcase music. Others focus on the musician, like Driven, which looks an artist's life and career. Sprinkled in are specials like January's I Love the 80s, celebrating pop culture and nostalgia.

Some are a combination. Upcoming reality series Born to Diva, created by former Sony Music chief Tommy Mottola, searches for a new female singer.

Some media buyers, who value VH1's appeal with adult viewers, are thankful for the changes.

"I like this strategy," said Optimedia's Kris Magel. "It's not what was on the network five months ago. That was starting to worry us."

The team behind the strategy includes, besides Norman, MTV and VH1 Entertainment President Brian Graden.

He is relying on some of his MTV guerilla programming tactics. At MTV, the schedule is constantly refreshed to keep up with its teen viewers' shifting tastes. VH1's older viewers may not crave the same rapid-fire change, Graden says, but they do want timely programming.

So, when special The Fabulous Life, looking at the lifestyle of a celebrity, was a hit, Graden's team rushed to produce more episodes. It's an example of VH1's new "backdoor-pilot" strategy: Start small with a special; if it works, greenlight a series.

VH1 executives hope these short-run shows allow the net to appeal to disparate demographics. Always a solid 18-49 performer, VH1 wants to encompass 18- to 54-year-olds.

Of course, it wouldn't be VH1 without Behind the Music.
There will be a few new episodes of the series, and it has spawned spin-offs Behind the Movies and Behind the Red Carpet.