VH1 Has 3 Secrets For Making Hit TV, And '90s Nostalgia Is One
VH1 is the fastest growing entertainment network on cable TV and it produces three of the top five cable reality shows. On top of all that, it's one of the most-watched channels in that prized demographic of 18- to 34-year-olds.
Chris McCarthy, president of VH1, MTV and Logo, says VH1's success hinges partly on '90s nostalgia. Today's 30-year-olds think "the '90s were just better."
"The economy was better" he says. "... It's different than any other decade. Like, after Sept. 11, things just changed."
Now, VH1 is about to launch a scripted show about hip-hop set in 1990. It's called The Breaks and it takes place in East Brooklyn. Executive producer Seith Mann acknowledges there are other hip-hop dramas on TV right now (Fox's Empire, Netflix's The Get Down), but he says, "VH1 has been on it for years."
He's thinking of shows like Behind the Music, Flavor of Love and the network's most successful franchise, Love & Hip Hop. "We always told a hip-hop story," says network president Chris McCarthy.
McCarthy, who has been president of VH1 for a year, says hip-hop's fan base cuts across racial demographics, and it's appealingly young. When the network started about 30 years ago, 20 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds were non-white. Now, the number is nearly 50 percent.
"Millennials grew up with a cell phone in their hand," McCarthy says. "They grew up in a world where these demographic shifts were happening around them and they were connected to 'different' every day."
So how does VH1 brand itself as "different"? Just look at what it did with Flavor of Love: When that show set rating records in 2006, the network doubled down. It decided the channel would be about three things: love for the '90s, hip-hop and subverting more successful mainstream shows. After all, Flavor of Love was always intended to spoof a massive ABC hit. "That was a counter almost to The Bachelor," McCarthy says. "And it was a little bit insane, but we pretended like it was real."
In the same way, today's top VH1 reality shows — including Love & Hip Hop and Basketball Wives — answer back to Bravos' Real Housewives franchise. Robin Boylorn is a communications professor at University of Alabama. At 38, she and her friends are slightly aged for VH1's target audience, but she says that's where they turn for guilty pleasure TV. They mock it by calling it "ratched TV," which Boylorn defines as "the opposite of respectability, and the opposite of what is expected of dignified black folk."
There was a time when people were ticked off about the ratchedness of some VH1 shows, but Boylorn says the channel has toned it down, in part by introducing shows like Martha & Snoop's Dinner Party, starring (you guessed it) Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg.
And The Breaks is full-on prestige. It stars and was produced by alumni of The Wire, only generally acknowledged as one of the best TV shows in history. The Breaks is something of a hip-hop answer to Mad Men. It stars Afton Williamson as Nikki, a striver who wants to run a record label, and Wood Harris (The Wire's Avon Barksdale) plays her mentor. Imagine a combination of Mad Men's Don Draper and real-life hip-hop impresario Russel Simmons.
In many ways, Williamson is also the target audience for VH1: She's 32 and she loves hip-hop and the '90s. So she reveled in preparing for the role — and executive producer Seith Mann says it showed. He remembers filming a scene in which Williamson's character is in the studio, producing a rapper, "and she starts bouncing her head, and the way she's shaking her head — that is a '90s head shake. I didn't give her no note. She brought that, and I was like: She knows this period."
Network president Chris McCarthy says the channel's relevance depends on an audience that's effortlessly pluralistic, and a development team heavy on female executives.
"I don't think anybody would've thought a year or two ago that we would have the majority of the top 20 reality series," he says.
Or, for that matter, the definitive re-enacted '90s head shake.
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