Following MTV's cue, cabler reinvents itself for key demo

VH1, which has been speeding toward a ratings crash, hopes to make a sharp U-turn at the corner of Hollywood and Vine.

That’s where the basic cabler will soon debut a flagship daily talker, along with a handful of other shows.

Much like big sister MTV did successfully five years ago, VHI’s idea is to reinvent itself and tilt toward a slightly younger, hipper Gen-X target audience.

Following years of ratings growth — driven by the success of “Behind the Music” and other rock history franchises — VH1 has seen its primetime ratings among cable homes drop 40% from January 2001 to January 2002.

Even worse, the cabler was down 34% among its core demo, adults 18-49.

A ratings slide like this rings alarm bells — with advertisers, affiliates and corporate parents — and has the potential to cost VH1 dearly.

Of course, the cabler had to do something.

“We’re reinventing from being almost solely a baby-boomer channel to a combination of baby boomer and Gen X,” VH1 topper John Sykes says. “It’s really freshening and modernizing the brand, and focusing it on an audience that has shifted.”

An on-air promo push is under way to usher in the new content.

VH1 exec VP of programming and production Fred Graver, who took the job in June, says the new shows are really about “the soundtrack of your life, reconnecting you with those moments, and widening the aperture of the music filter on the pop culture of the world.”

Enter comedian Zach Galifiniakis, host of “Lateworld With Zach,” a Hollywood-based half-hour, daily show.

The latenight yakker will be a variety show mixing musical perfs with comedy sketches and celebrity guests.

Per Sykes, “Lateworld” will tap into what music means to the life of today’s 31-year-old.

This summer, VH1 hopes to launch an animated series centered on Time writer Joel Stein. It’s all part of an effort to develop signature VH1 personalities — and turn around the ratings slide.

“What’s happened to VH1 is not an aberration; it happens all over the place,” says Ray Solley, an agent-turned-consultant for cable. “Networks sometimes peak out and have got to start fresh.”

Sykes downplays the effects of the ratings slide on VH1’s business, saying the strength of the brand insulates the network.

“Affiliates’ main concern is that we deliver a unique product that doesn’t blend in with the others’. Advertisers want that and ratings, but they look at both to buy,” Sykes says.

This is not the first time VH1 has felt the need to reinvent itself.

In the mid-1990s, Jeff Gaspin, now NBC’s exec VP of programming, came to the network and built a creative team that included his No. 2 Lauren Zalaznick and reality head Bill Brand.

Together they helped VH1 become known as the place to go for great stories about music, building such franchises as “Pop Up Video” and “Behind the Music.” From 1996-2000, they saw 14 consecutive quarters of ratings growth, Gaspin said, by finding franchises that repeated well.

Gaspin left VH1 last year. Zalaznick and Brand exited shortly thereafter.

The problem: Forty years of rock and pop history wound up not being enough.

“We strip-mined rock history,” Gaspin says. “Music history wasn’t as wide or deep as we would have liked to think. Now it’s going to take some time before the land grows again.”

Adds Solley: “It became so well-exploited, though, that most viewers began to say, ‘I have seen that’ even if they hadn’t.”

So will this latest makeover work?

Many members of the creative community — agents, managers, producers — say they like working with Graver’s team, and plan to continue pitching them their best stuff.

But others suggest that what the network is doing is philosophically too conservative.

VH1 appears to have been in frequent “reinvention” mode for the past couple of years, while never really making a big enough move to create major change.

In other words, unlike Court TV, which successfully rebranded itself as a network about crime in the broadest sense of the word, VH1’s definition of its programming may still be simply too narrow.

Show: “Being”

Time: 9 p.m.

Preems: March 4

Airs: Mondays

Logline: Docu series offers fans a glimpse of what an average day is like for their favorite rock star; here, the artists themselves are the cameras, looking out at the world from their own p.o.v. Shakira kicks off the series.

Show: “Never Mind the Buzzcocks”

Time: 9:30 p.m.

Preems: March 4

Airs: Mondays

Logline: A gamer, hosted by Marc Maron, is an adaptation of the BBC2’s long-running hit of the same title. Object of the competish, played out through a series of music parlor games, is to explore the trivial truth about rock stars, musicvids and pop culture. Show has no buzzers, no clock and no prizes — offers nothing but funny observations about music.

Show: “Late World With Zach”

Time: 11 p.m.

Preems: March 4

Airs: Monday-Friday

Logline:A latenight yakker, hosted by Zach Galifianakis, direct from Hollywood. Half-hour show will be a mixed bag of musical perfs, comedy sketches, roundtables and celebrity guests.

Show: “Ultimate Albums”

Time: 9 p.m.

Preems: March 10

Airs: Sundays

Logline: Series examines a single important record in each weekly one- hour seg, recounting in detail the passion and purpose that gave birth to it, why auds connect to it, and how it changed fans lives and culture as a whole. Def Leppard’s Pyromania is the first examination.

(List Compiled by Jill Feiwell.)

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