Brand Innovators: Behind the Music

How original programming and artist loyalty revived VH1
WITHIN MONTHS OF JOINING VH1 as president in 1995, John Sykes got sandbagged: Advertisers threatened to pull schedules, cable operators vowed to drop VH1 and reporters savaged the floundering channel. All were skeptical that the network, which had talked about its grand turnaround plans for a decade, would succeed. So much for a honeymoon.
Initially, the naysayers were proved right. When Sykes immediately dropped shows like reruns of Standup Comedy Spotlight, VH1’s anemic ratings dropped to .18. His intent was to focus solely on music. Turned out, however, that Smashing Pumpkins was no substitute for comedian Gallagher’s smashing watermelons.
“The people who listened to music were long gone from VH1, so we lost the few viewers who watched us for comedy. I didn’t know how hard it would be to change VH1’s negative image,” Sykes recalls. “If you confessed to watching us, it was like admitting you were really out of it. If you were an artist and your music was played on VH1, it meant your career was over. I was starting to wonder if we had just been lucky the first time around with MTV. There were a lot of times when I thought we should just kill VH1 off and build something else from scratch.”
But they didn’t. Sykes relied on his instincts and experience, which convinced him VH1’s audience was out there. Counting Crows, for instance, a group Sykes had signed while working as evp/talent acquisition at EMI Music Publishing in the early ’90s, was attracting fans, even though the music of the little-known California adult alternative band often seemed out of place on the younger-skewing MTV. Fans–typically 30-plus in age–were also snapping up the band’s CDs.
Sykes knew this was a generation that had a powerful connection to music–past and present. Music was the metaphor for their lives and their politics. Their parents had given up their big-band idols and thrown out the hi-fi once they had kids and suburban mortgages. But their boomer children, who were either delaying parenthood or not having kids, surrounded themselves with music, installing CD players in their cars and jogging with their Walkmans.
Marketers were so aware of boomers’ connection to music, they used rock anthems to woo them. Even President Clinton turned a Fleetwood Mac song into an inaugural anthem. Couldn’t VH1 capitalize on the allure, too?
Sykes thought so. He began to assemble a new team and quickly shifted VH1’s programming emphasis away from music videos. He flipped the channel’s 70/30 old/new music ratio. That injected currency into VH1, reminding aging boomers they could still be hip. The strategy worked. Pop-Up Video gained a following. Documentary shows like Behind the Music, Legends, Where Are They Now? and Storytellers became instant hits, making VH1 more of a destination channel. Sykes watched the network he once feared faced extinction rebound. It now enjoys a cool celebrity unimaginable just a few years ago.
VH1 continues to make great strides: Its 1999 second-quarter results proved to be the channel’s highest-rated quarter ever during prime time among 18-49-year-olds. VH1 earned a .6 prime-time rating among households–up 20 percent from the previous year. Yet its ratings are still modest compared to widely focused networks like USA, which earned a 2.4 rating during the second quarter. Prime-time viewing is up 153 percent since 1996, while revenue from 1996-1999 is projected to increase more than 85 percent. And, Sykes has stemmed the defection of cable operators. VH1 now has 67 million subscribers.
“We didn’t blink. It takes a long time to break through the media clutter, but we knew we were on the right track,” says Sykes of the network’s ascension. “Audience response was slow, but we had strong segment study research–and our gut instincts. We looked at the huge record sales in the VH1 demos and knew there was demand there.”
It also had commitment from parent MTV Networks. Making VH1 successful was not incidental for the company. Targeting boomers was a key part of the Viacom unit’s cradle-to-grave strategy that begins with Nickelodeon and ends with TV Land.
A combination of initiatives, including programming, brand positioning, support of fledgling artists and on-air promotions helped VH1 stage its comeback. Sykes also employed guerrilla tactics: He sent out advance copies of programs and favorable reviews to his A-list of contacts in the music and broadcast industries, hoping to generate buzz.
“Programming was highly important in the beginning, but there was no single factor that helped build the brand,” says Sykes.
VH1 programming chief Jeff Gaspin, however, gets cynical when talking about the network’s revival. “To call this a comeback story implies it was ever happening in the first place,” he observes dryly. “It was not.”
When Gaspin arrived three years ago, the channel’s highest-rated program was dusty reruns of American Bandstand. “We were running music videos. What do you do when you’re a music channel and music doesn’t scroll with viewers?” he asks.
Gaspin, a one-time vp/programming and development at NBC News who helped develop Dateline NBC and Weekend Today, drew on his news instincts. In the niche world of cable, he adopted a network strategy aimed at bringing in a broader range of viewers. For instance, Behind the Music began with an examination of the Milli Vanilli lip-sync scandal. Behind the Music’s instant popularity led to other segments that typically lured viewers with tales of rock ‘n’ roll excess. MC Hammer told how he lost his $53 million fortune; Fleetwood Mac members described their adulterous affairs with each other.
“These pieces are about music, but they are also just great, compelling stories. They allow us to be richly historic, without being nostalgic,” explains Gaspin.
Since Behind the Music’s launch in ’97, the shows have become less scandalous and more thematic. Musicians who once shunned the network now lobby for their own show. And for good reason. Motley Cr†e says its concert crowds doubled immediately after its segment premiered, bringing in younger fans of groups like Korn and Marilyn Manson. The week before Madonna was featured in 1998, she sold 26,401 copies of her Ray of Light album. The week after the airing, she sold 39,954, moving it from No. 55 to No. 31 on Billboard’s chart. VH1 has also scored new visibility through big event franchises, such as Divas and the annual VH1/Vogue Fashion Awards.
And the list goes on. VH1 is involved in a joint production on a Hollywood release with sister Viacom company Paramount Pictures. The channel is stamping its name on everything from books, CDs and Macy’s concept shops to the Web, where it plans to sell CDs and concert tickets. Recently, Today hosted a “Save the Music” week to generate support for the VH1 program that strives to preserve music programs in public schools. The show drew rock stars such as Lilith Tour founder Sarah McLachlan and first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, who reminded viewers that the president donated a sax last year.
Gaspin is about to take VH1 to the next stage of programming development. The network is creating 20 new series in a push that will increase its annual programming budget by 25-30 percent to $100 million. The slate will include scripted series, comedies, dramas, talk shows and animation efforts. The programs will begin debuting in August and include anthology concepts such as Back in Black, billed as Twilight Zone for rock ‘n’ roll. Another show in the works is Planet Rock, a live-action comedy based on the premise that the Earth’s entire music and pop culture history is actually the manipulations of extraterrestrials. Future comedy Party at the Greenbergs features a married ’80s singing duo. Pop Rocks is a drama/comedy dealing with the world of music through the day-to-day life of a music production company.
On the reality/talk show front, VH1 has The Jon Brion Show, which spotlights cutting-edge American music; Celebrity Karaoke Cabaret; and Rock & Roll Record Breakers, a show that looks behind the stories of rock’s greatest achievements. Rock & Roll Treasure is a music memorabilia show that may later incorporate online auction capabilities, and Scan is a program that captures a day in the life of rock ‘n’ roll across the country.
Gaspin is also stepping up production of VH1 made-for-TV films. In August, the channel will air Sweetwater, a drama about the band that opened Woodstock, starring Michelle Phillips, Fredric Forrest and Adam Ant.
“My strategy for movies is: Can I get up to the next level of ratings?” Gaspin speculates. “Can I do what USA and Lifetime have done? Maybe in six years time, I can be a music TV network. Timing is serving us well. The people who loved MTV 20 years ago are now 35 and they grew up on music TV.”
Of course, that was part of the problem with VH1 when it was created in 1985. The music channel may have been established too soon for aging rockers. But the tricky bit was the problem of positioning. For boomers, rock was the vanguard of their youth. Nobody needs a reminder that’s slipping away.
“No 45-year-old wants to look in the mirror and see that person. At the same time, they don’t want to be a teenager again because there was a lot of angst in those years,” says Sykes, 44, who grew up with the target audience VH1 is striving to capture. The former high-school drummer and classic- rock enthusiast who helped launch MTV 20 years ago says his core demo wants to be 30 again.
“Music is a powerful tie to that time in their lives, especially for the boomers. They feel privileged because of the music their generation created,” he says. “Their parents didn’t get it–they were listening to Jerry Vale. Now their own kids are listening to bubblegum rock.”
That fact isn’t lost on VH1’s network competitors. The cable outlet has become a favorite promotional venue. NBC’s The 60’s and ABC’s And the Beat Goes On: The Sonny and Cher Story captured big ratings after being extensively promoted on VH1. Not only does VH1 run ads, the channel also creates news segments and airs specially created music videos with clips from the network shows. During the May sweeps, for instance, ABC aired Double Platinum, starring Diana Ross and Brandy. In its co-promotion deal with ABC, the music channel played video music clips from the film, ran highlights of the careers of both stars and showed a clip trailer from the movie done in the style of a music video. In exchange, VH1 gets the rights to air the shows for free before they are rerun on the networks.
“We look at the networks as potential partners, not competitors,” says Sykes. “They’re in the movie premiere business. We’re in the cumulative audience business.”
That sentiment is shared by the networks, which have worked with Sykes’ team. “People who watch VH1 are the same people we want to watch the Today show. The cross-promotional platform is good exposure for both of us,” says Jeff Zucker, Today’s executive producer, who adds that Behind the Music is his favorite TV show.
Advertisers agree. They covet the VH1 audience, which Sykes says boasts the highest concentration of $75,000-plus households watching cable. Sykes says the typical advertiser on VH1 when he arrived was Nordic Track. Now it’s BMW. Marketers have teamed up with VH1 in more traditional ways: Samuel Adams beer has sponsored VH1’s Rock Across America and Heineken got on board with VH1’s Hootie and the Blowfish New Year’s Eve concert last year. They’ve also developed new, inventive promotions like Maybelline’s creation of a Divas nail polish.
To celebrate its new legitimacy, VH1 hired Los Angeles-based agency Rubin Postaer & Associates last spring. Early on, VH1 ran some promotional ads, but Rubin Postaer’s commercials mark the first major image campaign the channel has run under Sykes’ tenure.
“When I got here, VH1 was advertising itself with ‘Your mama don’t dance and your daddy don’t rock and roll.’ It made me shiver,” Sykes says. “The new commercials are ones we couldn’t have created five years ago.”
The campaign, which broke in December 1998, features Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Jewel, Shania Twain, John Mellencamp, Mariah Carey and Pete Townshend–many of whom are Sykes’ personal friends. They tell stories about themselves in grainy, black-and-white footage shot by documentary director Jon Kane. In one hilarious spot–worth the effort of trying to decipher what Keith Richards is saying–The Rolling Stones guitarist explains the genesis of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.”
Filmed on a private jet at 35,000 feet, he says he has no recollection of ever writing the song. He goes on to describe how he went to sleep and when he awoke, he accidentally discovered 30 seconds of the song on his tape recorder, along with 40 minutes of his snoring. If Richards hadn’t spotted that the tape had run out and rewound it, he suspects “Satisfaction” never would have happened.
“The brand positioning literally takes viewers behind the music. We shot in such a way that there are no advertising fingerprints,” says Gary Wenzel, svp/director of account services at Rubin Postaer.
“Our programming informs image and vice versa,” says former Coca-Cola executive Jim Corboy, who joined VH1 last July as svp/marketing. “Until the product was fixed, we didn’t feel it was time to advertise. Now we’ve got the foundation right, so the problem becomes: How do we put meat on these bones?”
He can rest easy. The VH1 spots were immediately noticed. Saturday Night Live has aired more parodies of the image campaign than the music channel originally shot. VH1 is thrilled with the lampooning. “I have a $15 million image campaign, and the NBC spoof adds another million in exposure,” says Corboy.
He’s not the only one who’s happy. “We have artists who tell us all the time that this is their channel; they love to see the shows that focus on the music,” says Wayne Isaak, evp/talent and music programming. “We helped create the popularity of stars like Sheryl Crow, Hootie and the Blowfish and Jewel by running a lot of their videos before they had big hits,” he says. “We like to look for new artists and give them heavy airplay.” Artists often show their thanks by cooperating with the network–sometimes exclusively–on future projects.
Another key component to marketing success? Staying relevant. Sykes, who grew up in Schenectady, N.Y., says the way he connected to the larger world was through music and television. To stay connected to viewers, he uses concerts as a research tool.
“Running VH1 is not about sitting in an office at the top of a building overlooking Times Square,” he says. “It’s about paying attention to what’s happening at the cash register and at concerts. I spend half the time watching the artist, half the time studying the audience.” VH1’s newly developed brand credibility means Sykes can extend its cache into other properties as well as overseas.
The VH1 president just brought in Ann Sarnoff as evp/business strategy and program enterprises. Sarnoff had operated in a similar capacity at Nickelodeon, where she was instrumental in establishing Rugrats and Blue’s Clues as two of the hottest franchised products for kids. Now she’s going after their parents. “I’ll be finding new ways to connect VH1 and its shows with consumers,” she says. “Behind the Music, Pop-Up Video, Storytellers, Divas are at the top of my list.”
After all, the VH1 brand has resonance with viewers. In 1998, VH1 shipped more than 3 million of the Divas soundtrack. As part of its expansion, VH1 is even finding new mediums. In April, the channel launched VH1 atWork, an online service that delivers CD-quality music directly to desktops. In addition to programmed music, VH1 is airing live Web casts from music events and concerts, such as Tom Petty’s tour and VH1’s Rock Across America this summer. The on-screen player includes details like the name of the song and its performer as well as album information for each track. VH1 atWork offers new cross-promotional opportunities for the channel’s TV shows, advertisers and sponsored events.
“There’s a huge e-commerce play here,” says Sykes. Currently, atWork is carrying VH1 program promos, which has given the channel a hint at the cross-medium potential of television and the Internet. During the Divas broadcast in April, VH1 aired spots advertising atWork. The next day, 18,000 people went to the site.
VH1’s growth potential is enormous, says Sykes. “We’ve only scratched the surface. We’ve reawakened the interests of people who have been passionate about music their whole lives. The network has tremendous momentum, and we believe that’s going to translate easily to the Internet. Our audience is the prime target for music and concert ticket sales. We think our Internet business will explode in the next two or three years.”
Sykes and his team have also finessed the problem of positioning its image to older viewers. How will they handle the challenge of holding on to rock ‘n’ roll’s youth when its artists are in wheelchairs?
“We’ve talked about creating a 50-plus network. Ten years from now it may not be appropriate to play the Stones or the Who on VH1,” says Gaspin. “A new channel would help keep VH1 at the right age group.”