Except for one missing element—a long stint in drug rehab—VH1 could qualify for its own episode of Behind the Music. First, the network struggles for years seeking recognition, putting out a couple of popular shows but never getting much of a fan base. Then, it scores a breakout hit (Behind the Music
itself), and ratings soar. Everybody's buzzing about the show, and the network is regularly featured on Saturday Night Live.
Then, the problem: When bands rush to follow up their big hit, the songs on the next album usually sound too familiar. VH1's next few new shows have the same problem, dwelling on music history or simply riding the broadcast networks' reality-TV fad.
Much like MTV two years ago, VH1 is trying to shake itself from a deep sleep. Its signature franchise, Behind the Music, has been on the air for five years, and, after 167 episodes, there's very little territory left to explore. This year's top-rated episodes profiled hip-hop artists Notorious B.I.G. and Sean P. Diddy Combs, a far cry from the musicians like Eric Clapton and Sheryl Crow who used to be the network's core subjects.
VH1 President John Sykes knows that his audience is waiting, perhaps impatiently, for something new. VH1's ratings have been stagnant over the past year, languishing around a 0.3 or a 0.4, according to Nielsen numbers.
The VH1 artist has changed because today's VH1 viewers are a different generation, according to Sykes. "VH1 targets a 31-year-old viewer. That used to be a baby boomer; now it's a Gen-Xer," said Sykes, who has been at the network's helm since 1995. "Like MTV, VH1 stays with its median age and doesn't follow that audience as it gets older."
VH1 certainly knows how to periodically make a splash. Its two big regular events are Divas
and the VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards. In October, the network sponsored and televised the Concert for New York City
That gave Sykes, a longtime MTV Networks and record-company veteran, another opportunity to remember why it's great to run a music network: After sitting in on a private rehearsal of The Who in a small studio in Manhattan's SoHo neighborhood prior to the benefit, he beamed that it was a "God-like moment for a baby-boomer."
Events and specials still draw strong ratings. The concert earned a network-best 3.7 rating, and the fashion show garnered a 0.9, the highest rating in nine years. VH1 also has found success with its original movies, including The Way She Moved
(1.27 rating, 3.6 million viewers on Aug. 29) and Hysteria: The Def Leppard Story
(1.35 rating, 4.5 million viewers on July 18). But original movies are too expensive to do steadily. VH1 plans to make three or four a year in the future.
The network's original series have not fared quite so well. Its take on reality TV, Bands on the Run, earned critical acclaim and an Emmy nod but averaged a 0.3 rating. Another original, Cover Wars, limped to a 0.2 average.
In the third quarter, VH1's prime time ratings were down 20% compared with the year before. Demos were off, too: 20% among adults 18-49 and 21% among adults 25-54. Several media buyers grumbled that VH1 should be able to harvest a 0.6 to 0.8 household rating.
The ratings slump hasn't yet cost VH1 advertising dollars. Media buyers say the network still attracts one of the youngest, most affluent audiences on cable and has a sterling brand name. "I don't think we're ever looking at VH1 for a ratings blockbuster," said Optimedia's Kris Magel. "I'm buying it because of its heavy concentration in two key demos, adults 18-49 and 25-54."
Industry insiders say VH1 needs at least a hit or two to stage a comeback. And Viacom's trying: VH1's programming budget for this year was more than $100 million. Over the past two years, however, the net has tested more than 15 new shows looking for something that would stick. Most of the series either have slipped off the schedule or haven't been renewed.
VH1 needs to create shows that have some attitude, says Lifetime's head of research Tim Brooks. "If someone showed you Jackass, you'd know it came from MTV. If you saw Primetime Glick, you'd say Comedy Central," said Brooks, who is also a writer of TV history. "Maybe they need to be tabloidish, but they need a consistent look and feel between shows.
"A music net isn't going to get a 1.5 or a 2.0 rating," he added. "But they should be able to get prime up to the 0.6 to 0.8 range. That traces back to lack of branded shows and consistency."
Sykes is optimistic about VH1's first-quarter slate, which includes a new biography series, Evolution,
and a daily live show from Los Angeles. Beginning this month, VH1 is rerunning the first season of sister net Showtime's Chris Isaaks Show.
There's a new supporting cast of executives surrounding Sykes, hammering out fresh programming ideas. In June, former VH1.com chief Fred Graver replaced Jeff Gaspin as the network's head of programming. Former Inside.com Editor-in-Chief Michael Hirschorn came aboard to lead the network's news and documentary division and is already working on a special about American skinhead music. Sykes said VH1's documentaries "were getting a bit soft," although he wouldn't cite specifics.
"Now you're going to see a harder look, a more credible journalistic point of view from daily news and documentaries," he added.
Another key change came last July, when VH1 execs reorganized four nights of VH1's prime time into themed vertical blocks. It also may solve a problem that has plagued VH1: Viewers didn't know where to find shows on the schedule. Unlike MTV's schedule, which prides itself on being ever-changing, VH1's jumbled lineup is considered irksome by some viewers.
So, for now, four nights are anchored with a theme, such as Front Row Friday
concert nights. Come first quarter 2002, the remaining three nights will be vertically programmed. Sykes says the objective is consistency and the strategy could stay around for three to four years. That's plenty long enough for VH1 to evolve again.