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VH1 gets a makeover

VH1 gets a makeover — The channel attempts to deliver a new image, but things aren’t going as well as planned

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With nearly as much fanfare as the introduction of a new presidential candidate, VH1 announced in the fall of 1994 that it was finally to be taken seriously. The focus, officials said, would shift away from easy-listening boomer pop to easy-listening pop for twenty- and thirtysomethings — goodbye Michael Bolton, hello Counting Crows. Shortly thereafter, Madonna, Sting, and Sheryl Crow each appeared in clever ads spouting ”The new VH1 — it’ll suck you in.” The network’s publicity department even decreed in a press release that the hyphen in its logo was henceforth dead: It was now VH1, not VH-1. That announcement alone hinted that the changes to come might not be as monumental as the network claimed.

Clearly, VH-1 — oops, VH1 — had nowhere to go but up. With its uninspiring mixture of Lite FM videos and lame stand-up comics, the network (which debuted in 1985) made The Weather Channel seem like compelling viewing. And in the year-plus since its retooling, VH1 has managed to achieve a unified vision. Granted, its new VJs are an often eerily homogenized group of low-key, clean-cut adults (the women blond and Clearasil-faced, the men resembling actors who could play Rachel’s latest boyfriend on Friends), but at least they aren’t the hyperactive smarty-pants of MTV. They introduce videos coolly or praise Hootie’s and Dave Matthews’ ”rootsy, no-nonsense style,” all on a set that resembles a combination newsstand and dimly lit coffee bar (which serves only decaf java, of course). Their tone, like the tone of the entire network, is easygoing but not sleepy time, savvy if unquestioning.

The channel’s new slogan — ”Music First” — is itself a subtle dig at its sister channel, which appears to devote more airtime to Road Rules repeats than to music videos. VH1, in comparison, presents itself as a cozy respite from the noisy world outside. For three hours each weekday morning, a ticker spews out news and sports headlines and major-city temperatures — but to the accompaniment of videos by Janet and Mariah, making the news, good or bad, more comforting. ”The Hot List,” a litany of VH1’s favorite CDs and video rentals, is available to viewers via the Internet. The network is so viewer friendly that you half- expect to find VJ A.J. Hammer on your doorstep with a fresh pot of hazelnut.

Yet, when it comes to the actual music being aired, nothing but the way it’s packaged seems to have changed. In its own ads, the channel takes credit for the success of Crow, Melissa Etheridge, and Hootie & the Blowfish, and certainly VH1 was one factor contributing to their rise. But a nonstop viewing of VH1 one day in early January, from 8 a.m. through midnight, found those artists, with the exception of Hootie, in short supply. ”One Sweet Day,” the Mariah Carey-Boyz II Men corporate merger, led the pack with five plays, followed with four plays each of the latest videos by Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Natalie Merchant, and newcomer Alanis Morissette. Those clips were surrounded by a who’s who of old-school VH1: Madonna, Gloria Estefan, Elton John, Amy Grant, Phil Collins, and Sting, plus an hour-long special of Bryan Adams videos. For comparison’s sake, the station’s pre-makeover playlist in March 1993 included Houston, Madonna, Sting, John, and Merchant (with 10,000 Maniacs). VH1’s overhaul promise — that superstars would share airtime with similarly serious, new-generation acts, whether Des’ree or the Jayhawks — has apparently narrowed to a tighter, more conservative playlist. The network’s current idea of a cutting-edge young band is Deep Blue Something, whose trifle ”Breakfast at Tiffany’s” is in heavy rotation.