VH1 Reprises Music Theme

May 1, 2006  •  Post A Comment

Once again, VH1 is getting behind the music.

After enjoying two years of ratings growth with celebrity and pop culture programs, MTV Networks President of Entertainment Brian Graden is steering VH1 back toward its music roots. To help meet Mr. Graden’s goal, programmers at the 21-year-old Viacom-owned channel have ordered a new reality series, “Rap School,” starring rapper and actor Ice-T. The network also recently announced a handful of other music-themed projects.

“There’s always been a huge amount of music programming on the channel, but during the past couple years the louder and more popular programming has been in the pop culture realm-and that’s what we’re trying to correct,” said Michael Hirschorn, executive VP of original programming and production for VH1. “Celeb reality has blown up so quickly it’s created a countervailing need to balance the network.”

In acknowledging the task will be a balancing act, Mr. Hirschorn said VH1 will try to maintain the ratings momentum of series such as the Tori Spelling-led “So NoTORIous,” Hulk Hogan family reality series “Hogan Knows Best” and C-list-celebs-sharing-a-house show “The Surreal Life” while bringing a music brand to the forefront of the channel.

Cable consultant Ray Solley said the VH1 executives’ decision is indicative of the inherently cyclical nature of television branding.

“Networks launch with a specific niche, then they need to expand the audience and advertising possibilities, so they start adding other kinds of shows,” Mr. Solley said. “In the case of VH1, the expansion has become the brand; the annex is larger than the house. You can’t keep adding and getting further from the brand; you have to circle backward. Travel Channel’s doing it, GSN is doing it and now VH1 is doing it.”

VH1 ratings bottomed out in 2002, partly due to an overreliance on “Behind the Music.” But during the past two years, celebrity-driven countdown shows and reality soaps have helped the network find new viewership: Last year the channel was up 15 percent among total viewers in prime time compared with 2004, according to Nielsen Media Research.

The downside: VH1 has been accused of co-opting the programming genres of rival network E! rather than succeeding with its own brand. Ratings spike when the celebrity reality shows air but fall sharply during regular hours, suggesting the popularity of off-brand reality fare isn’t necessarily creating regular VH1 fans.

Distinguishing the Network

Also, MTV Networks research showed that viewers of fellow music net MTV were not “graduating” to watch VH1, said sources with knowledge of the network’s programming strategy.

“A lot of people watch VH1 without even knowing what channel they’re on,” said Brad Adgate, senior VP of Horizon Media. “E! and VH1 are so similar that sometimes you think you’re watching one when you’re watching the other. [But] VH1 certainly has a high concentration of viewers that advertisers market to.”

So last year Mr. Graden, who assumed oversight of the network in 2002, told programmers to edge the channel’s brand back toward its music roots, creative community sources said. Programmers, in turn, have asked producers for music-related reality and documentary subject matter.

In one step of Mr. Graden’s plan, Michele Megan Dix received a newly created gig devoted solely to developing VH1 shows with a music element. In January Ms. Dix was moved over to become senior VP of music and talent development for VH1 after spending three years in a similarly titled post for MTV, developing shows featuring music talent such as Snoop Dogg’s “Doggy Fizzle Televizzle.”

Greenlighted series such as the heavy-metal reality show “SuperGroup” and the “VH1 Rock Docs” documentary series-both set to debut this year-also were inspired by Mr. Graden’s edict.

Ice-T’s “Rap School” likewise is designed to bring music-and core viewers-back to VH1. The show is a hip-hop follow-up to last year’s Gene Simmons series “Rock School,” in which the KISS front man taught a class of classically trained students the heavy-metal arts. VH1 declined to provide further details about the Ice-T show, though the series is expected to be announced this week.

With “Rap School” and other projects on the horizon, Mr. Hirschorn hopes to marry celebrity-centric shows with music programming-which the network pulled off with the series “The Flavor of Love,” starring rapper Flavor Flav. “Flavor” was recently renewed for a second season.

“We want to seek out music programming that draws from what we’ve learned from doing celebrity reality,” he said. “If we nail down a format, we want to keep doing it, but just expand our scope to add something else.”