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'Runner-up' channel has grown into something VH1-derful

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

PASADENA, Calif. -- MTV still has better ratings, but VH1 has the buzz.

What started out in 1985 as a second music video channel has become a completely different creature.

The network turned the corner from also-ran to cable contender with the premiere of attention-getting "Pop-Up Video" in late 1996.

Cable's biography documentary craze led to "Behind the Music," VH1's signature series about "the struggles and triumphs" of rock stars, which just had its third season premiere last weekend.

This year's "Divas Live" concert brought VH1 its highest-rated day in the network's history, according to executive vice president of programming Jeff Gaspin. "That night VH1 was the No. 1 cable channel in all of cable."

MTV alienated viewers in its rush to replace music videos with non-music programming, but Gaspin said VH1 has been able to avoid such a turn because VH1 evolved differently.

"Our audience has embraced our move from music videos to music programming," Gaspin said after a VH1 press conference last month. "Because of the way VH1 was created, as a second music video channel, the perception followed us for a long time. That's what we heard when we did research when I got here three years ago."

The makeover has sharpened VH1's image: The cable channel is all about music programming, Gaspin said. That means music game shows, music performance series, music comedies, etc. "We went from being a channel about music videos to a channel about music."

The strategy is working. The number of subscribers is up, ratings are up and advertising revenue is up.

Marketing Evaluations, the company that issues "Q" ratings based on the popularity of TV shows and personalities, recently released a report that found VH1 among cable's most-liked networks. "Behind the Music" was the No. 2 program among men 18-49. VH1's "Legends," "Where Are They Now" and "Before They Were Rock Stars" scored well among women in the same age group.

Kathy Haesele, an ad buyer for St. Louis-based Advanswers, said even as VH1 grows, it may never be as desirable to some advertisers as youth-skewing MTV. With a target audience of ages 18 to 49, VH1 faces competition for advertising dollars from many other networks -- both cable and broadcast -- that target the same demographic.

"MTV is going for an audience that is so young [ages 12-34] and selective, there aren't many other networks going for that audience," she said. "VH1 has a harder environment to compete in, but I think they've done a good enough job and [advertisers] are pretty happy with their performance."

Haesele said VH1 has grown on the buzz meter because the network puts on distinctive programs.

"They're doing quite well, and viewership is increasing," Haesele said. "In the early days I don't think they knew who they wanted to be. They were floundering and trying to be a lot of different things and hadn't really focused. They seemed to have pulled together programs that are very much on the mark and focused."

That's reflected in the network's to-the-point slogan: "Music First."

"When we go into scripted series or original films, it's still going to be about music," Gaspin said. "I already air acquired movies, like 'That Thing You Do.' We've run 'Grease' and concert movies. I'm confident the viewer will accept us."

This weekend marks the premiere of VH1's first original movie, "Sweetwater" (9 p.m. Sunday), starring Amy Jo Johnson from "Felicity." She plays Nansi Nevins, lead singer for the band Sweetwater, which opened the original Woodstock in 1969. After the concert, the band all but disappeared.

"I like this story because it was more typical of the music business than what we normally show, which are the lives of superstars," Gaspin said. "This is a band that had success, but they never had success after that. It was a brief moment for them."

Unlike some cable movies that rely on no-name (and sometimes no-talent) actors, "Sweetwater" also features Kelli Williams ("The Practice") and Michelle Phillips ("Knots Landing").

Another original VH1 movie rolls out Aug. 22 with "Ricky Nelson: Original Teen Idol" starring newcomer Gregory Calpakis as the title character and Jamey Sheridan ("Shannon's Deal") as his dad, Ozzie.

VH1 has also made a habit out of promoting broadcast network mini-series in exchange for the cable premiere rights. NBC's "The '60s" aired Monday, and ABC's "And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story" premiered on VH1 last night.

Theatrical films are also making their basic cable premieres on the channel. "Telling Lies in America," about a fast-talking Cleveland disc jockey, airs 9 p.m. Aug. 23.

But VH1's most daring new program is "Random Play," a sketch comedy series that debuted last month and airs 10 p.m. Saturdays. After gaining not-so-positive notoriety for stand-up shows with watermelon-busting comic Gallagher in its early days, VH1 has shied away from comedy.

"When I first came to the channel three years ago, comedy was sort of a dirty word," Gaspin said. "But we decided after 'Pop-Up Video' that the channel could have a sense of humor."

On "Random Play" a troupe of comics performs music-themed sketches, including John and Yoko Ono's home movies (they play the board game Battleship), David Lee Roth reporting from Lilith Fair (he gets slapped a lot by the female performers) and children playing the "Behind the Music" board game ("Second album tanks, go back 10 spaces.").

"Random Play" stars two cast members from MTV's acclaimed skit show, "The State" and features cameos by real-life music figures, including David Cassidy.

"Everything is about music and pop culture," Gaspin said. "But not television pop culture, not fashion pop culture. It's always about music."

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