Music videos killed the radio star, but who killed music video television?
To this day, one of television’s great ironies is that “MTV: Music Television” opened the wound that would eventually kill its namesake. There was no gesture to alert viewers that their regularly scheduled programming would move elsewhere on the dial. As the network twisted the knife by steadily decreasing music programming in the late 90s and early 2000s, it eventually cancelled its flagship video outpost, Total Request Live, before staying afloat (or going down depending on how you look at it) on a ship captained by Snookie, DJ Pauly D, and Mike “The Situation.”
Just as 80s glam rock gave way to the grunge boom reverberating from the Pacific Northwest, which somehow gave way to the cookie-cutter pop of the late 90s and 2000s, networks tend to make shifts gradually, whether it is intended or not. That “MTV: Music Television” deviated from its original mission isn’t surprising and neither is the ill will toward the decision. It will, however, always be hamstrung by its name.
VH1, or “Video Hits One,” is facing a similar identity crisis. MTV’s sister network (both Viacom owned), was created 30 years ago this January to be MTV’s soft-rocking alternative — an MTV-lite. As the leader changed over the years, VH1 walked the path of resistance for the longest time. It was, coincidentally (or maybe not so), around the same time Billie Joe Armstrong was walking down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams that VH1 reversed course. Like MTV and many other niche cable networks before it, VH1 maxed out its earning potential. Music wasn’t enough anymore. Television, like most businesses, is a game best played by copy cats.
After a successful run with nostalgia-fused comedy of the “I Love” series and a five-year run of being the “Celebreality” channel, VH1 is opening its third decade by making its second pass at scripted television with the so far well reviewed time travel rom-com, Hindsight. The show has little to nothing to do with music, and with poor premiere ratings, it is certainly not number one. So why is it on “Video Hits One,” and how does the network see itself moving forward?
Before we look at our crystal ball, it’s imperative that we look back at how we got here.
The Other Music Channel
You can’t tell the story of VH1 without making several large footnotes about MTV. Through the 80s and into the mid-90s, MTV was music. The network that literally planted the flag in August of 1981–its first live image was the MTV logo imposed over footage of the Apollo 11 landing–gave up the territory it ruled for more than two decades when it slowly started the process of weaning its programming away from the VJs, the Duran Durans and the Backstreet Boys. And we can’t forget about the one of a kinds, like Michael Jackson, Kurt Cobain and yes, even Carson Daly. May the aforementioned icons no longer with us rest in peace knowing their video presence made three simple letters an inseparable entry in the pop culture lexicon.
The quick rise of MTV paved the way for an alternate music channel and in 1985, VH1 was born. Where MTV turned looking for the next big thing into an art form, VH1 carved out its niche in making nostalgia big business.
Early on, the network featured slighter older contemporary rock, light pop and alternative artists while primarily maintaining its place as a destination for music videos. When MTV started to dabble with music and non-music shows as a compliment to their video library, VH1 followed suit with highly successful artist-centric programming, some of which still lives on today.
When the network rebranded as “VH1: Music First” in 1994, it ushered in a commitment to the artist. In the late 90s, the three series — Pop-Up Video a spin on the traditional music video that utilized small fact bubbles on screen to tell the story behind the video and the artist, Behind the Music, a documentary series, and Storytellers, a live set narrated by the artists themselves–helped formed the identity of the network.
“MTV may not play as many artists as it used to,” Roy Lott, the former Capitol Records president, told Billboard in 2001. “But at least VH1 is extensively involved with a large range of artists.”
Even as cable television was becoming more competitive, there was a clear desire for music on TV, and music proved popular to a key demographic. Both MTV and VH1 were reaching the 18-to-49 year-olds in a way that made broadcast networks pay attention.
CBS aimed to bring in younger viewers during the 1995 season–increasing spending by 25 percent more than it ever had–by snatching up large chunks of advertising space on MTV, VH1 and their Viacom sister network, Comedy Central. The next year, 1996, MTV2 debuted. By 2001, Viacom owned Black Entertainment Television (BET), Country Music Television (CMT) and smaller music video music-based spinoffs for MTV and VH1.
To differentiate itself from the new networks, VH1 found a balance between music programming and original content. The early of the 2000s saw “The Greatest” Series countdown moments in rock history and pop culture, which led to comedy shows like Best Week Ever, which gave now well-known comedians like Paul F. Tompkins, Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer and Doug Benson national exposure. Soon, the network found its next hit with the “I Love” series, in which comedians fondly recall each year of the previous decade.
John Sykes, VH1’s former president, wanted longform programming and scripted shows to be apart of the network’s future. “The important thing to remember,” Sykes told Billboard, “is that everything we do is based on music.”
Soon the reality of the television business would prove Sykes’ words hard to deliver on.
“Celebreality” and the Golden Age of Campy Reality TV
Viacom’s “MTV’s music suite” deal was the start of relegating music videos to the outskirts of the cable peripheral. MTV Jams, VH1 Classic, VH1 Soul among others gave music fans their outlet, while freeing up the established channels, which owned lower, accessible numbers on the cable box, to expand outside the niche.
MTV leveraged its image by consistently proving to its core young-adult viewership that they were invested staying hip at all costs — even if it meant selling out on the music industry. Television’s ultimate bait and switch began in 1992 when The Real World made network execs question why they’d stuck with the scripted model since the tube was invented.
By 1995, a show about strangers living together in a foreign city was the network’s highest rated show (The legacy marches on this year with The Real World: Skeletons and no, it’s not actually seven skeletons living together but we can dream).
In 2000, Survivor premiered on CBS and all hell broke loose.
It seemed like every network tried to turn its own average Joe into Joe Millionaire or find a Desperate Real Housewife to liven up the suburbs. Fox cared enough to coax two attractive women, Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie–rich people who would become famous for being famous–into living on a farm for our entertainment.
And then VH1 gave us the corpse of Danny Bonaduce and sold it to us as reality.
Disclosure: The author of this article watched VH1 religiously during the “Celebreality” days, including for two full seasons of “I Love New York” when he was a teenager. He claims to not regret the error. We do.
To its credit, VH1 at least looked for a different angle. Instead of average Americans winning over viewers, VH1 ran with this concept of the fading celebrity reimagined as the reality star, dubbed “Celebreality.” This included tired stars like Bret Michaels of Poison fame, who got his rocks (of love) off for a few years — music television in name only.
Soon, Hulk Hogan, Charo, Ron Jeremy, Jose Canseco and Verne Troyer were names of people America watched… on VH1.
For a good portion of a decade, the music channel sat on a gold mine of campy reality television before the concept began to collapse. It all began in 2003 when The Surreal Life, which was modeled after MTV’s hit series of a similar name, put C, D, and E-list celebrities in a house together. Some of those celebrities fell in love… in love with the idea of parlaying their 15 minutes of fame with a few more ticks of the clock.
The man with the biggest clock of all, Flavor Flav, became the poster boy for the “Celebreality” movement. The Public Enemy hypeman and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer was a cast member on The Surreal Life, where he and Brigitte Nielsen formed one of the strangest couples you’ll see on television, reality or fiction, enough to warrant a spinoff appropriately named Strange Love.
When the Brigitte and Flav split, the latter was given another shot at unscripted, everlasting, meaningful love. Enter Flavor of Love, where attractive young ladies would vie for the heart hidden behind Flav’s clock. Three seasons of Flavor of Love weren’t enough to net Flav his special someone, but they were enough to land us two seasons of I Love New York, starring Tiffany Pollard, better and only know for being the confrontational “loser” of Flav’s spinoff of a spinoff.
Four spinoffs of I Love New York later, including a show about a man named Frank the Entertainer who courts women from his parent’s basement, and “Celebreality” had run its course. Fair or unfair, the alleged murder-suicide of two former VH1 contestants on yet another spinoff, I Love Money, was pinned as the end of the “Celebreality” era by news organizations and television critics.
In responding to the deaths of the contestants and the network’s reality genre, VH1’s current president, Tom Calderone, told the New York Times in a 2009 interview that he wanted to diversify the channel’s programming. “It’s important for us that we’re not famous for one thing,” he said.
Post-Celebreality: Old Logo, Familiar Tune
VH1, at 30, is starting to chase a serious scripted hit, the kind that launches fledgling networks into prominence. A rom-com like Hindsight makes sense — it’s low-stakes and it fits in with the network’s bread and butter, creating rosy nostalgia. But the show is only VH1’s second crack at a scripted series, after 2013’s Hit the Floor did well enough to earn a second season. VH1 has a long way to go if it wants to be a real player in scripted television and catch up to its older sister — whether they can do it without completely ditching music remains to be seen.
That’s not to say music is totally absent from VH1’s masterplan. It reverted to a variation of its old logo as it plays a familiar tune in 2015. VH1’s morning music video block, previously called “Jump Start,” is now called VH1 + Music, further stylizing the distinction between where the network is now and where it wants to be. Maybe the more important note is that music videos are still there, everyday.
Last year, VH1 televised the ambitious “Super Bowl Blitz: Six Nights + Six Concerts initiative.” The live concert series featured J. Cole, Janelle Monae, Fall Out Boy, TLC, Goo Goo Dolls and Gavin Degraw. Each played a concert over the course of six consecutive nights in one of New York City’s five boroughs and New Jersey. The new season of Storytellers will make history with first-ever live broadcast by Ed Sheeran live from Dublin, Ireland, on January 24 — giving music fans everywhere a glimmer of hope.
Then again, it recently gave Nicole Richie another reality show and Dating Naked is a real television program, not a Saturday Night Live skit, and it returns for a second season in 2015.
MTV is mostly void of music — though it did bring Total Request Live back to capitalize on the popularity of Ariana Grande with “Total Ariana Live.” Short of hiring MTV News personalities Kurt Loder, Matt Pinfield and Tabitha Soren to storm Viacom’s Manhattan headquarters to “Take Back MTV,” we’re left with the eroding musical core of its sister station to remind us of how television brought music into our home in a way the radio never could, transcending the artist as a popular culture figure, only to leave them vulnerable in the open portal of the internet.
The decline of music television has been mutually beneficial to both industries, even if it feels like the video star died for the sins of the cable networks. Videos still spark discussion and outrage, only they are now seen by millions, even billions more eyeballs on the internet than cable could offer.
The weight of brand equity from the names “MTV” and “VH1” will never be lifted — and remains ammo for wistful critics. In disbanding the VJs and relegating video stars to the web, the networks can better fight to regain cable supremacy.
Isn’t that what they wanted in the first place?
Den of Geek Editor Chris Longo is the conductor of the Twitter follow train. Hop on here as he tweets about your favorite shows.