VH1 Looks to Redefine Itself With Rush of New Programming

Network targets what it calls the 'adultster' demo

Following a year of exhaustive audience research and a cavalcade of brand consultants, VH1 is now feverishly commissioning a host of new shows in a wide variety of genres that will roll out over the next few months. The goal is to court more viewers from VH1’s target 25-34 age group—a demographic that VH1 president Tom Calderone and his strategists have started referring to as “adultsters.”

The effort follows a rough 2010 when the network saw its nightly ratings drop 31 percent from the year before. For some media buyers, the problem is that the network’s brand has blurred. “I don’t think we understand what VH1 is,” says Peter Gardiner, a partner and chief media officer at Deutsch. “I don’t think the consumers know either. They have good shows, but they don’t have a brand where people run home to watch VH1.”  For Calderone, though, the trouble has been that the programming was too narrow. “We had to make our slate more diverse,” he says. “We were really famous for just a couple of ideas. The competition dating-thing and its spinoffs,” he says. “And as popular as those were, it’s really important to portray a network that had a lot of different formats, a lot of different voices. That’s really what wasn’t working.”

Accordingly, Calderone says he’s been in what he calls a “turbo” development mode, commissioning new shows in four main genres—reality, scripted programming (earlier this year, VH1 premiered its first scripted drama Single Ladies), music, and female-led comedy—in an effort to broaden out the network’s slate.

Some of the programming in development isn’t actually all that new. Pop-Up Video and Behind the Music, two shows that made VH1 famous when they premiered in the mid-’90s, are coming back.

But those revamps will be joined by new efforts, like a one-hour Randy Jackson-produced series, set to premier in 2012, called Aptitude Test, in which each week a celebrity takes a high school job placement exam to see what they might have done vocationally had they not entered show business; and an as-yet untitled 10-episode reality series that follows rapper T.I. around in his daily life as he looks to readjust to life after an 11-month prison stint. A scripted sketch comedy series and a new reality program that follows a high-end vintage consignment shop owner are also in development.

Calderone says he’s hesitant to call what’s going on a “rebranding” since the effort is primarily focused on programming, rather than VH1’s outward image. “It’s not like we’ll be having promos on the air saying ‘We’re now the adultster network,’” he says. 

Whatever is going on at the network, the effort seems to be paying off. VH1 has seen a near 50 percent ratings increase year over year this past summer, according to Nielsen. Still, Deutsch’s Gardiner says a wider programming palate on its own may not be enough if the network doesn’t clearly define itself. 

“To me, the question is: What do they stand for on TV? Unless they step up and figure out what and who they’re going to be, they’ll be reinventing again in [a few] more years.”