VH1 Hits a New High Note - Broadcasting & Cable

VH1 Hits a New High Note

Once stuck in a rut, the network is now a pop culture powerhouse
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Celebrity Rehab, a show in which a popular TV shrink attempts to cure a group of drug-addicted, washed-up stars, has just been greenlighted for season two. Dr. Drew Pinsky and his cohorts are now out searching for a new batch of fallen stars—next season's versions of Chyna, Daniel Baldwin and others—to counsel.

To some, it's undoubtedly still a head-scratcher that the home for Pinsky's celeb-related fare is VH1. Launched in 1985, the network once tabbed “Video Hits One” was founded as MTV's lite-leaning sister, offering a steady stream of music videos from the likes of Kenny G, Elton John and Whitney Houston.

But the network is, in fact, now a head-turner, a vastly re-imagined television success story that has gotten younger in its sensibility and programming as it enters its mid-20s. More than anything, it offers a blueprint for other networks looking to reinvigorate—if not reinvent— their brand. VH1 has deftly spun off show after show based on the original's success. It has hopped from music videos to documentaries to its current obsession with pop culture.

More networks than ever are offering star-related fare; few have scored as well in the genre as VH1. It's to the network's credit that this is one of several genres it is weaving together to loudly assert its branding to both viewers and advertisers as the home for all things pop culture—including and especially music.

With an average of 869,000 viewers in prime, VH1 finished the first quarter of 2008 with its highest viewership ever, capping 23 consecutive quarters of growth, according to Nielsen. And that's not on the back of any one show: The network posted 21 series and specials last year that averaged at least 1 million viewers with premiere episodes. It is now a top 10 cable network for ad spending for the first time ever with about $500 million in sales in 2007, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Unique visitors to VH1.com also jumped 32% year over year during the first quarter. And the network has lowered its median age from 30 in 1993 to 28 now. Looking for a word to describe the transformation calls to mind another VH1 series: Celebracadabra.

Having hit a ratings trough some five years ago by over-relying on the Behind the Music documentary franchise, VH1 executives are forging ahead with a fixed gaze toward keeping the brand from becoming a one-note programmer. To do that, they have named a new programming chief, expanded into new Websites unrelated to TV franchises and aimed at pop culture junkies, and devised dozens of “podbusting” opportunities for advertisers to align their brands with the network's pop culture fare.

“We're not a one-hit wonder network and we didn't just arrive on the scene like 'Here we are,'” says VH1 Executive VP/General Manager Tom Calderone. “There has been a very great rise in our ratings and our creative output. For us, it all comes under the pop culture umbrella.”

VH1 has come a long way since its vaunted birth, when Marvin Gaye's “Star-Spangled Banner” video kicked off the programming. The network was launched on Jan. 1, 1985, by Warner-Amex Satellite Entertainment, then a division of Warner Communications and parent of MTV. For its first 10 years, the channel existed as an older-skewing, less-hip alternative to MTV, heavy on light rock, jazz and R&B, and host to name VJs including Don Imus and Rosie O'Donnell. Facing a significant ratings setback in the mid-1990s, VH-1 was rebranded as “VH1: Music First,” expanded its repertoire of music acts to include rockers like Red Hot Chili Peppers and rappers like Eminem, and moved to include music-related series, such as Pop-Up Video, and Behind the Music and its companion series Legends.

By 2002, Behind the Music, in all its scandalous glory, had grown as tired as an overplayed pop refrain. Ratings were down some 35% and VH1 needed new life. MTV Networks whiz-kid programmer Brian Graden, now president of entertainment, MTV Networks Music Group/president, Logo, was brought in to run the makeover, which he did by shifting VH1's focus to pop culture, and its tone to tongue-in-cheek.

SETTING THE NEW TONE

The “Music First” slogan was dropped, and some of the bio programs were replaced by irreverent countdowns such as the hit I Love the… franchise and Best Week Ever. The genre the network branded as “celebreality”—unscripted shows about C-level stars—began when Graden scooped up The Surreal Life after it was cast off by The WB. That term, which the network devised for marketing and packaging purposes, grew to become part of the cultural lexicon as Surreal led to a slew of successful spin-offs including Strange Love, Flavor of Love and I Love New York.

“There were a lot of shows on TV at the time that traded on a little of the scandal and the celebrity reveal and the stuff you're not supposed to know,” Graden recalls. “With the next generation, there seemed to be a love of the absurd and the things we grew up with together perceived culturally in a more personable, silly and funny way.”

Key to the current rebrand's programming is Jeff Olde who, three months ago, was made executive VP, original programming/production. Olde, whose musical tastes lean toward anything pop, was brought on by Graden as a consultant five years ago. He ascended to his current role after the network's celebrated top programmer, Michael Hirschorn, left to form his own production company, Ish Entertainment.

Olde is fostering a level of creative camaraderie among his troops, using ideas he learned while still a producer at reality TV trailblazer FOXLAB. By initiating bowling nights and martini-filled “programming counsel” retreats with senior executives at Los Angeles-area hotels—like one last week at Santa Monica's Casa Del Mar—Olde hopes to stir ideas that trade convention for inspiration.

“I love that people at this group feel they can champion ideas and get behind them without being constricted, because when you do that you limit opportunities,” he says. “I want VH1 to be the playground for talent.”

With loose buckets for original programming shaped by the nights of the week (“Celebreality Sundays,” “Urban Mondays,” “Therapy Thursdays,” etc.), Olde says that what sets VH1 apart from its competitors is the impulsiveness with which it lets producers run with ideas. Rehab, for example, got the go-ahead from a brief meeting with Pinsky. Flavor of Love, a dating show now in its third season, with former Public Enemy rap star Flavor Flav choosing among female suitors, was greenlighted after a 35-second pitch for a different-Flavored version of ABC's The Bachelor, Olde says.

“A lot of places micromanage on the creative front, but we're not constrained,” he adds. “Pop culture moves at the speed of light and a lot of our programs speak to that. As we have become more comfortable with ourselves creatively, it's allowed us to work more quickly.”

Aside from season two of Rehab and its potential spin-off, VH1 has also greenlighted I Love the Millennium, a countdown of the '00s, and is committed to continuing to test new types of shows like its comedy improv series Free Radio, and scripted shows, despite struggles with So Notorious and Star Stories. Right now, other successes include The Salt-n-Pepa Show, Miss Rap Supreme and The Cho Show. Network viewers are also eagerly awaiting this summer's I Want to Work for Diddy, which tries to find a new assistant for the hip-hop mogul. The top-rated show is Rock of Love, in which women vie for a rock star.

STRIKING THE RIGHT NOTES

VH1 is hardly alone in TV's celebrity-fare universe; E!, Soapnet and Bravo are among the competition. But part of VH1's savvy comes in a renewed commitment to its music-roots cache. The network still capitalizes on its relationships with labels to break artists (most recently Sara Bareilles, Leona Lewis and Feist), and runs tent-pole ratings-drawing tribute shows like the Hip Hop Honors and Rock Honors, in their fifth and third years, respectively; marquee events such as last year's Concert for Diana; and standby Emmy-winning documentary series, such as Rock Docs.

The network's ratings aren't the highest in cable, but they stack up well against its competitive set. VH1 finished first quarter 2008, up 5% from a year earlier with total viewing in prime—869,000 versus 831,000 a year ago. In that same quarter, E! averaged 595,000 in prime, while Bravo averaged 760,000; MTV averaged 1.02 million.

As the network approaches its New York upfront presentation May 8, the idea of a “pop culture umbrella” encompassing more than just music is what it will be pitching to advertisers. There are facts to back up the idea that VH1 stands in a wholly different spot than it did last year, when the C3 ratings currency was first established. Back then, VH1 executives found their channel at the bottom of a C3 list of networks known for holding onto its audiences through commercial breaks. Noting that the network dropped about 20% of its viewers during ad time was understandably viewed as a major conundrum.

VH1 execs regrouped, shortened breaks and came up with some “podbusting” ideas that have turned around its engagement ranking with impressive speed. For fourth quarter 2007, VH1 was the No. 1 cable network on IAG's Program Engagement Measure with non-sports primetime programming for the 18-34 demo. Advertisers can, for example, sponsor Behind the Music vignettes about reality shows' contestants or have their brand messaging “pop up,” nostalgically invoking the channel's early hit series Pop-Up Video.

“They've done a really good job positioning themselves to consumers and the advertising community along the lines of pop culture and being trendy, and as a place where young consumers turn,” says Marlowe Sidney, VP and associate director of national broadcast at media buying company Initiative. “They heard loud and clear that they were one of the culprits in terms of [not] delivering commercial ratings. I don't know that they've necessarily found the answer yet, but they're actively trying to see what works.”

VH1 is also advancing digitally. The network has launched several standalone Websites, such as FlavorOfLoveWorld.com and BestWeekEver.tv, as well as The VH1 Blog, a forum for pop culture and music discussion that is set to expand this summer.

The online goal is to both program in tandem with hit shows (“blog parties” around April's Rock of Love 2 finale yielded 3,100 comments on the VH1 Blog the night of the episode and 25,000 visits to the site between 9 p.m. and 2 a.m. that night), and with non-show-related topics that match the brand. The network recently used its VH1.com main site to sneak-peek music videos for Mariah Carey and Usher, and ran a poetry contest for two pairs of tickets to a Madonna concert as a giveaway. VH1 has also invested more in its digital channels, VH1 Classic and VH1 Soul, which program to audiences over 35.

But it's the mothership that's both reflecting and—its executives maintain—dictating pop culture. This past Halloween, the network received several of pictures of kids dressed as Flav and Rock of Love's Bret Michaels. And they're further driving the efforts through “Watch and Discuss” and now “Blog and Discuss” marketing materials.

“We've changed our messages a lot, but it's still the same brand,” Calderone says. “We've just been nimble enough to put the mirror back on pop culture and give a sense of urgency to the viewer that they can't miss this network for a day or two or they'll be out of the loop. That's a position we strive to be in.”

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