Series finale's socko ratings double previous VH1 record

VH1 is savoring the “Flavor” of Flavor Flav.

The pint-sized Public Enemy rapper, who turned 47 on March 16, gave the cable network its first taste of boffo ratings March 12.

Almost 6 million viewers tuned in to the finale of “Flavor of Love,” a “Bachelor”-style dating skein aimed at finding love for the heart-broken celeb. Tally more than doubles the ratings of VH1′s previous record-holder.

What’s more, perf trumped the premieres of HBO’s “Big Love” and Lifetime’s “Cheerleader Nation,” both of which enjoyed multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns leading up to the launches. Flav even gave sudser du jour “Grey’s Anatomy” a run for its women, gaining a big 12 share among femmes 18-34 at 10 p.m.

Flav has starred in three shows for VH1 thus far. His first stint was as a housemate on C-list celeb show “The Surreal Life.” The real-life romance he developed with cast member Brigitte Nielsen gave way to a spinoff, “Strange Love,” which chronicled the bizarre twosome as he attempted to win her over from her fiance. (She broke his heart in the end — in the process dashing VH1′s dreams for a second edition of the series).

Both shows vaulted VH1 back into watercooler circles — but the series almost didn’t happen: when Flav showed up to audition for “Surreal Life” in 2004, security wouldn’t let him on the lot.

“He had just gotten out of Rikers prison. His goal was to come out to Los Angeles and get on TV,” says Cris Abrego, one of the executive producers of “Surreal.”

Flav, who usually sports a Viking helmet in addition to his signature necklace timepiece “was a great character for TV. We knew that in an instant,” Abrego says. “The truth of it is he’s a real guy. As crazy as he is, he’s got an amazing heart, and that is what I think attracts audiences to him.”

VH1′s exec VP of programming Michael Hirschorn admits he was pretty surprised at the final tally.

“It happened all under the radar of the mainstream media,” says Hirschorn, who was unable to describe what exactly compelled him to give Flav a third series on the network.

“It’s so hard to explain. (Producers Mark Cronin) and Cris put together an incredible pilot, but it’s really one of those intuitive things,” he says. “I can’t explain why he’s fascinating, he just is.”

And as far as trainwreck television goes, Flav outperformed them all, from Bravo’s “Being Bobby Brown” to UPN’s “Chaotic,” the video diary of Britney Spears and hubby Kevin Federline.

To put it into better perspective, the finale of “Flavor of Love,” outperformed all the recent reality hits of sister network MTV including “The Osbournes,” “Newlyweds” and “Laguna Beach.”

VH1 has been flying on Sunday nights for some time. Cabler’s scheduling czar Ben Zurier says he was shocked “but not that shocked” when it came to the night’s win.

“Our ‘celebreality’ lineup has held up against ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Grey’s,’ even the Oscars,” he says. “And this show had been climbing at rates we could scarcely comprehend.”

Hirschorn and his team took a different approach from other nets to promotion: they uploaded clips from the episodes online before and after to help build word-of-mouth on the show.

“Our approach as it relates to viral media is the exact opposite of NBC,” which has gone after clip-driven Web sites like YouTube.com for carrying content from shows like “Saturday Night Live.”

“To make this kind of promotion work, you have to be able to lose control of the media,” he says. “We got millions of impressions with those clips, in addition to the stuff we streamed on (the network’s broadband channel) VSpot.”

But three times might not be the final charm for Flav –”We definitely plan to continue being in the Flavor Flav business,” Hirschorn says. “We’re already working on his next job for the channel.”

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