VH1 wants less love, more redemption
That's what VH1 is starting to wonder. The Viacom-owned cable network, whose top five shows this year all have the word "love" in the title, is reassessing its heavy reliance on dating and relationship shows. Although the network says it was already in the process of plotting a new direction, the shift has taken on greater urgency since one of its reality show participants, Ryan Jenkins, apparently killed himself after becoming the lead suspect in the murder of his ex-wife.
VH1 has canceled both "Megan Wants a Millionaire" and "I Love Money 3," which Jenkins had appeared on. It is also reevaluating its reliance on 51 Minds Entertainment, the production company behind the two programs, as well as several other reality hits on the network over the last several years.
"This is not what I signed up for," said VH1 President Tom Calderone in his first interview since Jenkins' body was discovered Sunday in a British Columbia motel room. Calderone added that VH1 was "trying to get together" with 51 Minds to figure out where the vetting system went wrong and "fix this problem and never ever let this happen again."
Calderone also wants to bring some new producers into the mix. "We always want 51 Minds to be part of our arsenal and stable of creativity, but the only way VH1 will survive and be healthy is to have several different voices and production partners," he said.
Many of VH1's reality shows were sired from "The Surreal Life," a program in which B-list and C-list celebrities (think Tawny Kitaen and Verne Troyer) shared living quarters. Out of that came "Flavor of Love," "Rock of Love" and "I Love Money" and then those shows spawned "Charm School," "I Love New York" and "Daisy of Love." Brian Graden, who recently left VH1 parent MTV Networks, was the architect of much of the content on the network during this time.
Although Calderone wants to tweak the tone of VH1's reality shows, the risk is that he'll alienate VH1's audience if the shows lose some of their, uh, tawdry appeal. "I Love Money 2," for example, averaged 2.3 million viewers while "Real Chance of Love" has been averaging 2.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen. Overall, VH1's prime-time average audience this year is 760,000, up 26% from five years ago.At the same time, a change in tone might make the shows easier to swallow on Madison Avenue. Many blue-chip advertisers are wary of some of the shows on VH1 because they often feature drunken antics, fighting and lots of sexual innuendo. According to industry consulting firm SNL Kagan, VH1 will have advertising revenue of $424.4 million in 2009, down 12% from two years ago. Although some of that can be attributed to the troubled economy, people close to VH1 say several of the network's programs are a hard sell.
Calderone points to "The T.O. Show," its new program with NFL star Terrell Owens, as indicative of the direction he'd like to take the network. The show follows Owens as he transitions from being a star on America's team (The Dallas Cowboys) to trying to rehabilitate his image and career on the Buffalo Bills. Calderone said he wants to bring a more "redemptive" feel to the network's reality programming.
"We don't want our viewers tuning in and feeling like it's the same network all the time, that is not something we want to be famous for," Calderone said.
Of course, that's not the only thing he doesn't want to be famous for.
-- Joe Flint
Photos: Top Left: "Megan Wants a Millionaire" star Megan Hauserman. Credit: VH1/51 Minds. Bottom Right: VH1 President Tom Calderone. Credit: VH1