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VH1 gives celebs 15 more mins.: advertisers, auds taking notice.

HOLLYWOOD With the help of some lovable C-list celebs, VH1 has finally emerged from the shadow of big sis MTV.

Amped by the success of "Celebreality" Sundays--a block of programming dedicated to docusoaps starring the lesser-known--the net for the first time is diving into scripted series and buying pricey off-net fare.

Additionally, affable hasbeens--Danny Bonaduce and former "Brady" Christopher Knight--will bare their lives for more of the kind of guilty-pleasure programming that has made VH1 a TV destination.

Madison Avenue, too, is taking notice of the cabler's addictive lineup--now a more valuable part of the MTV Networks portfolio. Net will generate $294 million in ad revenue this year, according to Kagan World Media estimates--a surprisingly bigger haul than higher-ranked networks A&E, Spike, Sci Fi Channel, Court TV and TLC.

Brad Adgate, director of research at Horizon Media, says that's because advertisers prize the cabler's young audience--median age during the last broadcast season was an ultra-low 28--along with the buzz that originals including "The Surreal Life," "Hogan Knows Best" and "Celebrity Fit Club" keep generating.

Cabler's got an enviable batting average in terms of cranking out hits. Even one-shot events like "Kept," featuring Jerry Hall as the ultimate bachelorette, and "Surreal" spin-off "Strange Love" have conjured season-long ratings magic.

For the summer, VH1 outranked category competish E! and once-hot Bravo while "Celebreality" held its own against stiff Sunday night competition from USA's "The 4400," TNT's "Wanted," HBO's "Entourage" and MTV's Sunday Stew block. VH1 programming exec VP Michael Hirschorn says that what VH1 has managed to do differently is offer surprising looks at people you thought you knew.

"We try to reinvent ourselves every six months or so," he says. "Everyone in TV is working at warp speed, so we're exploring several things outside of reality. But we're being opportunistic about it; there's no general agenda to do any one thing. It's the MTV way."

General manager Tom Calderone, a nine-year MTV vet who took over in April, is charged with keeping that momentum going. Working with MTV Networks Music Group entertainment prexy Brian Graden, Calderone has already begun aggressively courting programming from unconventional sources:

* After locking up "Surreal" creator-producers Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego to a multishow deal, execs ponied up for off-net episodes of "America's Next Top Model" and repurposed segs of "Tommy Lee Goes to College."

* They'll share in the potential ratings windfall of "Miss America," which relocates to sister network CMT next year. (VH1 will air related content leading up to the pageant and has rights to repurpose the show.)

* Should another season of Mark Burnett's "Rock Star" be made available to it, VH1 is open to greenlighting a second cycle.

* But first execs will put the VH1 spin on some busted top-dollar projects, reviving singing competish "I'm a Celebrity, but I Want to Be a Pop Star" and Tori Spelling sitcom "Notorious," both originally set up at NBC.

What all these projects have in common is pop nostalgia, the niche VH1 has so carefully carved for itself over the past two years. Via "Celebreality," 15 minuters and stars of yesteryear--e.g.,Omarosa, Pepa (of Salt 'n' Pepa), Jackee Harry and Hulk Hogan--transform into media darlings. While other networks trade in self-manufactured celebrity like the "Gastineau Girls" or the eyebrow-raising returns of such players as Howie Mandel, VH1 concentrates on "celebrities who are game to make fun of themselves," Hirschorn says. "They've been really smart to stay focused and program to their brand. Even something like pairing repeats of 'Tommy Lee' with (Gene Simmons reality show) 'Rock School' is smart," says UTA partner Matt Rice. "VH1's made it very clear that they're going to really go after scripted shows and appropriate acquisitions. Finally, it feels like they've found their place."

VH1 has several scripted comedies in the works, aside from the Spelling starrer, and ten-percenters say things are only going to get more competitive.

"Places that will consider a quirky half-hour project are limited," says one TV agent at a major agency. "(Besides HBO and Showtime), there are Comedy Central, Spike, FX. Now VH1 is a stop along the way."
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Title Annotation:TELEVISION
Author:Martin, Denise
Publication:Variety
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 12, 2005
Words:684
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