Like a band in search of its sound, 15-year-old U.S. cable station VH1 has staggered through numerous programming variations in search of its identity. Was it a music video channel? A comedy channel? A fashion channel? With nearly non-existent ratings, did it even matter?
Under the stewardship of John Sykes, who took over five years ago, VH1 has finally found its voice and an audience has found VH1. Third-quarter 1999 (Neilson) ratings marked the 13th consecutive sampling period during which VH1’s popularity rose among adults 18-49, up 22% over the course of a year. More than 70 million viewers sampled the channel in August 1999.
VH1 virtually scrapped its entire programming lineup three years ago and started from scratch, repositioning itself as the channel that speaks to music lovers over 25 years old. Now, with such established programs as Pop-Up Video (its first hit show after the channel’s re-launch) and Behind the Music (its current signature series) under its belt, VH1 is coming into its own.
Last year, the cablecaster increased its long-form programming from 26 hours to over 500, says VH1’s executive vice president of programming and production Jeff Gaspin. The music channel also had a regularly scheduled primetime lineup of long-form programming for the first time this past fall.
Gaspin categorizes 90% of VH1 product as non-fiction. Even subtracting music videos from the mix, non-fiction accounts for over 50%. ‘We learned that listening to music wasn’t necessarily a priority in our audience’s lives, but that information was. The best way to get people in touch with music again was to give them information about it,’ he says.
Much like A&E found its anchor with Biography, VH1 has gone the bio-doc route with its franchise series, Behind the Music. The hour-long nightly program, which traces the struggles and achievements of artists who have made major contributions to the music world, is the channel’s most successful series. Its ratings are up more than 18% from last year, and it ties with ESPN’s SportsCenter as favorite cable television program among males 18+, according to a Cable Q survey conducted by Marketing Evaluations, Inc.
Behind the Music has set the tone for the editorial direction of VH1’s non-fiction programming – series that tell the human story behind the songs. The style has filtered through to other VH1 original productions, including such staples as Where Are They Now? and Before They Were Rock Stars.
Because Behind the Music attempts to get first-hand interviews with subjects (as opposed to using third party/expert sources), the channel has given interviewees the right to script consultations. Gaspin says he sees no conflict of journalistic integrity. ‘Many artists get consultation, but no artist gets final approval,’ he notes. ‘We have rejected projects or stopped production when we felt the subject matter was inhibiting us from telling the story.’
VH1 produces about 50 new Behind the Music episodes each year. The channel is developing various Behind the Music ancillary products, including a magazine, CDs and books. It is also being mined as a source for original VH1 docudramas.
Budgets for most VH1 original programs range in the low hundred thousands per episode. VH1 does about 80% of its original production in-house, but it has been seeking coproduction partnerships, primarily for its original movies, which have a budget range of US$2.5 million to $4 million.
‘The biggest problem I have with outside production companies is that most try to pitch me performance series,’ Gaspin says. ‘The truth is, that’s the one thing we do really well. I need producers for fictional material, for documentary-style product and ideas like that… but it has to be about music.’
New series currently in development for the first quarter of 2000 include Record Breakers (about rock ‘n roll records broken), Most Important Moments in Rock History (w/t), and Behind the Music: The Road to Fame (chronicling the rise of contemporary bands). Also in the works is an original That’s Entertainment-like documentary about pop music in the movies.
Gaspin believes VH1 is still at a point of adding product to its mix, as opposed to replacing it. ‘There’s still a lot of potential for building the channel both for non-fiction and fictional programming.’