VH1 overhaul works, ratings show

Nostalgia programs lure viewers

Monday, March 22, 2004

— The renewed VH1 has imagined itself as the antidote for the itchy remote control finger.

If you've seen VH1 in the past year, chances are it happened something like this: While mindlessly channel surfing, you stop on a picture of a forgotten 1980s band. Does that singer from A Flock of Seagulls still have a haircut that looks like a science experiment gone wrong?

Does he even have hair at all anymore? The hair, the clothes, the music -- what were we thinking during those heady days of the Reagan administration?

Before you know it, 20 minutes have passed, and you've dropped the remote.

Somewhere, Brian Graden and Christina Norman are smiling. The architects of VH1's reconstruction, a work still in progress, know that the first step for success is to get you watching again, even if by chance.

Graden, a programming whiz at MTV, was given the assignment of resurrecting VH1 two years ago. After a good run in the late 1990s, the network long considered MTV's big brother had grown stale. Channel surfers were finding things like the 98th airing of "Behind the Music" with Poison, Graden said.

"You think I'm exaggerating," he said. "But I'm not."

It was at the end of 2002, when "I Love the '80s" began drawing solid ratings, that they hit upon a direction.

Many people consider VH1 primarily a music channel, but executives were surprised by research that found music was the third thing mentioned by viewers when they thought of the network. Nostalgia and storytelling came first.

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AP Photo

Members of the band Berlin perform on VH1's "Bands Reunited" in this undated publicity photo. From left are David Diamond, Terri Nunn, John Crawford and Rod Learned. The show is one of several by VH1 to help the channel revamp its audience ratings.

As a result, "I Love the '80s" was as likely to talk about who shot J.R. as who shot up the Billboard charts.

The "Bands Reunited" series has attracted attention lately. Host Aamer Haleem leads viewers on a journey to find members of defunct acts like Kajagoogoo, the Alarm and Squeeze and persuade them to perform together again.

Prime-time ratings during 2003 were up 24 percent over the previous year, according to Nielsen Media Research.

VH1's executives have high hopes for "The Partridge Family" this fall. The network will have a competition over six months to cast people in a remake of the 1970s sitcom, then film new episodes with the people viewers have selected.

And, predictably, VH1 starts "I Love the '90s" in a few weeks.