"This time, it's personal" is a great tag line for an action sequel, but, on Nov. 30, it will also be fitting for VH1, which will broadcast the My VH1 Music Awards, an awards show whose winners are chosen by online voting rather than backroom politicking.
Of course, television needs another music awards show like Britney Spears needs a degree in molecular biology, so VH1 executives had to figure out how they could do a music-related awards show that went beyond the trendiness of the VH1 Fashion Awards. That's where the trendiest, most-hyped medium ever, the Internet, came in, allowing viewers to pick the categories, choose the nominees and crown the winners.
"We knew there were a lot of music-award shows so we had to come out with something that was current and up-to-the-minute," explains Jeff Gaspin, VH1 executive vice president, programming and production. "And we felt that, with music being such a part of the Internet, an awards show that had convergence would help make it distinct."
The show could already be called an Internet success: The call for categories attracted more than 65,000 entries, with 25 categories selected. Many of the suggestions were redundant, but there were a number of gems that, Gaspin says, point to the reason for having greater fan and viewer involvement. For example, there's the 'This Song Kicked Ass But Was Played Too Damn Much" category.
"That category sums up the sensibility we have for the show," he says. "The categories are what people talk about, not just what record executives say in the backroom."
With the categories and nominees sorted out (voting began Oct. 20 at www.vh1.com), it's time to start tallying the votes. That is a technically straightforward process, according to Fred Graver, senior vice president, VH-1 Group, which includes VH1.com, Sonicnet.com and Country.com.
"It's just a voting and polling engine," he says. "And people will be able to vote until the last minute. When you vote, you can see the percentages of the overall vote. About 10 days before the show, we'll take that feature in and make them tune into the show to see who won."
Giving the viewer ongoing totals, Graver believes, will spur fan groups and online groups and Web sites dedicated to artists to help out with publicity. "We hope to get the fan clubs, no pun intended, fanning the flames of the vote. One of the questions that came up when we were first developing it was, what if 200,000 people vote Phish in? But if 200,000 people say they'll watch if we put their favorite band on, we'll take it."
VH1 is expecting about 2 million votes, a total in line with that for the MTV Music Awards, which offers viewers the chance to vote online on a single category.
Of course, the VH1 viewer is older than the typical MTV viewer, but Graver believes that is just fine as far as driving turnout. "The 25-plus market still makes up more of the population than the under-25 crowd, and it's the fastest-growing group on the Internet," he says. "The Internet is certainly becoming a larger part of their lives, especially with women."
Like its flashier brethren, VH1 is wrestling with the relationship among on-air content, online content, and life in the broadband age. Graver, however, says there won't be as much appointment viewing for the VH1 viewer, so the interactivity push at VH1 will focus more on a big event that can build up over time rather than a daily program like MTV's
Total Request Live (TRL).
"The Internet channel and the on-air channel both drive the viewer to the voting procedure," he explains. "And the voting procedure drives the viewer to the awards show."
The online voting will contribute to the drama of the show itself. Award presenters will be able to tell viewers that the voting has closed seconds before the award is presented.
"We're not going to produce our winner packages the same way as other shows," Graver says. "It'll be more like the Academy Awards, where you have a little bit of tape for everybody, and we'll just roll that tape. But we won't have an elaborate package."
Four Web cams will also be incorporated into the broadcast, allowing viewers to catch different action online. One will be in the pressroom, one on the podium, a third on the red carpet outside and the fourth in the production truck for budding producers.
If all works, Graver expects to take the online-voting format over to TNN for one of its country-music awards programs. "I'm looking forward to that, because country fans are so passionate and rabid."