A look at VH1's addiction to tired shows. Can the former highflier network rebound from its latest failures? Stay tuned.
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David Gest, Liza Minnelli
Credit: David Gest and Liza Minelli: ILPO Musto-IM/London Features

Liza and David

[Cue KATRINA AND THE WAVES’ ”Walking on Sunshine”]

It was hip. It was cheeky. It was downright fabulous. Riding a wave of buzz generated by the success of such breakthrough series as ”Behind the Music” and ”Pop-Up Video,” VH1 — the channel known as MTV’s slightly stuffier older sibling — was by 1999 enjoying the best ratings since its 1985 debut. Its droll take on the music biz had the 18-to-49-year-old demographic in its thrall. Life was looking pretty good for VH1…

But then the network fell on hard times.

[Shift to grainy black and white. Cue BON JOVI’s ”Wanted Dead or Alive”]

The channel’s crown jewel, ”Behind the Music,” began scraping the bottom of the music-bio barrel, with entire episodes devoted to Bad Company and O-Town. Failed new series multiplied faster than Motley Crue groupies: There was the game show ”Never Mind the Buzzcocks,” ”Late World With Zach” — a chat show built around hirsute unknown Zach Galifianakis — and Pup Video, a bizarre ”TRL”-meets-”Animal Planet” program in which videos were screened for a crateful of puppies. (Yes, puppies.) Executives inexplicably put films such as 1972’s ”Godfather” and 1987’s ”Lost Boys” into the ”Movies That Rock” rotation. And on Oct. 29, the network pulled the plug on the linchpin of its new slate, a reality series starring newlyweds Liza Minnelli and producer David Gest. The freak-show-fueled flurry of hype and bad press ended before the first episode could air.

Did anyone really believe replays of NBC’s ”Rerun Show” were going to sweep the nation? How do programmers explain a nearly 20 percent ratings drop since VH1’s late-’90s heyday? And what is management doing about it? All this when ”Behind the Network: VH1” continues.

Dramatics aside, VH1 is indeed in sorry shape. Cable-TV analysts from Paul Kagan Associates project that the network’s profits will tumble 30 percent this year to $99 million. (By contrast, MTV will make more than $400 million, up 4.1 percent.) ”VH1 has definitely had difficulty delivering viewers, and truly that just stems from its stumbling in the programming division,” says Kathryn Thomas of Chicago-based Starcom Entertainment, which advises companies on media buys.

”Clearly there’s a branding issue — audiences that found VH1 through ”Pop-Up Video” or ”Behind the Music” haven’t been compelled to come to other programming on the network,” says Jack Myers, publisher of a self-titled TV-industry newsletter. ”[The channel needs] to develop appealing series programming and then find that one breakthrough it hoped it would have with Liza & David.”

Finding viewers — any viewers — is the immediate concern, says one former VH1 exec. ”A month ago, [the network] ran ‘The Godfather.’ Why the hell was that on VH1? Because it’s desperate for ratings…. You don’t build a brand with something like that, and you have a danger of annoying your core audience.”

VH1’s new president of entertainment, Brian Graden, apparently gets it. In addition to overseeing MTV, where he developed such hits as ”The Osbournes” and ”Jackass,” the 38-year-old exec was tapped in May to reinvigorate VH1. He quickly commissioned a reality-saturated lineup for this fall, including ”Rock the House,” a fusion of ”Trading Spaces” and ”Cribs” (a celeb decorates a room in a fan’s home). Also on tap: ”Music Behind Bars,” a controversial look at prison bands that has already drawn protests from victims’ families, and ”Rock Med,” which features docs treating ailing (or just plain hammered) concert fans.

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