VH1 rocking with revamp

Cabler hopes for ratings change with skeins, pix, new look

This article was corrected on July 25, 2002.

Newly installed VH1 toppers Brian Graden and Christina Norman are moving quickly to put their stamp on the struggling music cabler, greenlighting an aggressive fall slate of series and specs aimed at building on the channel’s still-strong retro music brand.

Cabler is also beefing up its “Movies That Rock” franchise, snagging the broadcast premiere of the Oscar-winning “Moulin Rouge” and several other theatricals. And rather than simply repurposing other nets’ music specials, Graden wants VH1 to sign A-level talent for original concert specs.

Flurry of activity comes barely three months after Graden was named entertainment prexy of the net and Norman was tapped to serve as G.M.- exec VP. Execs were brought in to reverse a ratings slide that saw VH1 lose up to 40% of its aud in a year.

While music will remain a key part of VH1’s brand, Graden — who serves as prexy of both MTV and VH1– said he and Norman’s first goal has been to move the net beyond its rep as the music history channel. As much as “Behind the Music” put VH1 on the map, Graden said the slew of copycat skeins that followed — many on VH1 itself — wore out audiences.

“The brand was extraordinarily strong,” Graden told Daily Variety. “But the execution against that brand was mostly one-dimensional; it was all about music history. We want to (expand the scope of) VH1 so it becomes more of a three-dimensional network.”

Norman noted the cabler has historically had “an incredible ability to tell stories. But there are a lot of stories we haven’t told and a lot of ways we haven’t told them.”

While he wouldn’t talk specifics, Graden acknowledged his Viacom bosses haven given him more coin to beef up VH1. “Anytime we’ve had the good ideas, the money has followed,” Graden said.

In addition to a much-buzzed about Liza Minnelli/David Gest reality skein — to be officially unveiled this morning at a Los Angeles press conference — the new VH1 programming roster includes fare ranging from a music-themed celeb redecorating show to an animated sketch comedy series.

Among the new skeins and specs that’ll hit VH1 over the next six months are the following:

  • “Rock the House”: Weekly half-hour skein in which a music fan gets a surprise visit from a fave rock star who, a la TLC’s “Trading Spaces,” redecorates the fan’s house or room. Skein, set to bow in October, is from Immortal Entertainment, created by Marcos Sierga and exec produced by Sierga, Matt Weaver, Happy Walters and Richard King.

  • “Music Behind Bars”: Docu reality series will explore the lives and crimes of jailhouse rockers by focusing on a different prison band each week. Skein, from exec producers Arnold Shapiro and Alison Grodner (“Big Brother 3”), is set to bow Nov. 1.

  • “Liza & David”: Minnelli and new hubby Gest pitched the idea for this skein themselves, according to Graden, and will serve as exec producers of the project, which will begin airing as a weekly series in October.

    While the tonal similarity to MTV’s monster hit “The Osbournes” is unmistakable, Norman said “Liza & David” will differ by focusing on one event each week: A dinner party hosted by Minnelli and Gest in their Manhattan penthouse.

    Each episode will follow the duo as they prepare for the party; include highlights from what are expected to be star-studded but intimate meals; and then feature the hosts serving up dish about their celeb guests afterward.

    “Liza is one of the most amazing pop culture icons and David wants to push people’s buttons,” Norman said. “It’s going to be wild.”

    Mimi James is an exec producer on the project, which has been given a 10-seg order.

  • “Camp Chaos”: Weekly half-hour animated comedy will spoof pop music culture via a series of themed sketches. Skein, based on the Web site of the same name, is from exec producers Bob Cesca, Eric Trebach and Jordan Berliant; it’s expected to premiere sometime this fall or winter.

  • “I Love the ’80s”: Based on the BBC format, each hourlong seg will review the seminal pop culture events of a given year from the 1980s. VH1 has ordered 10 episodes of the project, which will air as part of an ’80s-themed week of programming Dec. 9-13.

In success, Graden said he could see expanding the format to look at the 1990s or 1970s.

All that’s ‘Glitter’

As for theatricals, in addition to 20th Century Fox’s “Moulin Rouge,” VH1 will have the exclusive broadcast windows for the Mariah Carey-toplined “Glitter” and the Mark Wahlberg starrer “Rock Star.” Latter two pics are both from Warner Bros.

VH1 will begin airing all three pics in late 2003 or early 2004, following their runs on HBO. While VH1 has been in the theatrical biz for years, it’s always bought second and third windows of projects.

The stepped-up approach to theatricals will also follow through for music specs.

While VH1 has staged concert events of its own, particularly with its “Storytellers” franchise, net has usually let other nets focus on bigger, bolder concert specs. Cabler then bought repurposing rights to the project.

“But there’s no one else really playing in the adult music space,” Graden said. “We can be in first position on a lot of these music specials.”

On other programming fronts, Norman has ordered full seasons of the before-they-were stars skein “Driven” and the newsmag “All Access,” while greenlighting the William Shatner-hosted “One-Hit Wonders” as a weekly series.

Specs slated for fall and winter include the two-hour teen idol history “Bubblegum Babylon” and three five-hour miniseries: the TV Guide-produced “100 Moments that Rocked the Tube”; “The 100 Greatest Love Songs,” narrated by Barry White; and “The 100 Sexiest Artists.”

Latter project rolls out Sept. 23-27; “Love Songs” is set for Nov. 11-15; and “100 Moments that Rocked the Tube” will bow in January.

Norman has already started tweaking VH1’s on-air look and said she expects more changes in coming months.

VH1 will also continue to be active in the kudofest arena, bringing back the “VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards” and the “My VH1 Awards.” Signature skein “Behind the Music” will continue to produce original segs, but not at the 40-hours-per-year rate of the past.

Graden said the last three months have been a whirlwind of activity as he and Norman set out to pump up VH1. They’re already encouraged by new Nielsen data showing double-digit ratings growth for VH1 this summer vs. the net’s spring and winter performance.

“It’s been a very fast indoctrination,” he said. “But I really felt the need to show some early creative momentum.”

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