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VH1 repositions itself for 'MTV graduates'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At 9 o'clock, Eastern time, on a recent Friday night, the cable-television music channel VH1 pre-empted its regular programming to sell concert tickets. By arrangement with the rock star Tom Petty, VH1 offered its viewers first crack at 19,200 prime seats -- 400 tickets, at $25 to $45 apiece, for concerts in each of the 48 cities on Mr. Petty's coming tour.

In the first 15 minutes of this experiment, viewers tried more than 500,000 times to call an "800" number that the channel flashed on the screen. Only a tiny fraction of calls got through to the 500 operators fielding them, but the flood indicated that many more people than usual were tuned in. The event had been heavily promoted.

On this trial run, VH1 was not retaining any proceeds from the ticket sales. On balance, though, it was a triumphant night for the channel, which for 10 years has been badly overshadowed by its siblings at Viacom Inc., MTV and Nickelodeon.

Long dismissed as a backwater for aging baby boomers with fossilized musical tastes, the network has recently been repositioned (losing, in the process, the hyphen that used to rest between "VH" and "1") as a place for "MTV graduates": viewers in their 20s and 30s with an ear for contemporary, if not cutting-edge, music -- and jobs and credit cards.

In other words, people who would call in -- on a mobile phone, perhaps -- for Tom Petty tickets.

"The viewers we're aiming at want this kind of entertainment, but they don't have four hours to stand in line for tickets," said John Sykes, president of VH1, in a telephone interview from his office in Manhattan. Mr. Sykes was hired in March by MTV Networks, which runs all three Viacom channels, to "refocus" VH1, which because of its cost structure and corporate connections is almost universally available on cable systems, and is quite profitable.

However, VH1's ratings are well below those of Nickelodeon and MTV, not to mention competitors like the Family Channel, the Nashville Network and even the Learning Channel. Last year, VH1 was available to nearly 50 million households and was watched by an average of 87,000 people at any given time.

That figure is clearly too low to satisfy MTV Networks. More important, though, the company wants to attract younger, hipper consumers to the channel.

"We want to turn VH1 into a place for music lovers who have outgrown MTV and have nowhere to go," said Mr. Sykes, 39.

"And while they love music," he added, "for the first time they're beginning to see new music styles coming up without them. But they're trying everything they can to stay in touch with music as their lives become more complex."

What 25- to 34-year-old "core viewers" don't want, Mr. Sykes and other Viacom executives concluded, are "oldies," country music and videos by veteran artists who are not currently represented on the charts. VH1 does not play rap or heavy metal, and never has.

Mr. Sykes began to introduce major programming changes last fall. Gone now are programs like "VH-1 Country"; "My Generation," a celebration of '60s-era music whose host was Peter Noone, formerly of Herman's Hermits; reruns of "WKRP in Cincinnati," and several shows centered on stand-up comedy.

In their place are music-oriented shows like "Naked Cafe," which features interviews with and backstage glimpses of musicians shown on VH1; "The Big 80s," which showcases the music young adults listened to in their teens, and "4 On The Floor," in which a quartet of rock critics discuss new recordings and music-related issues.

Mr. Sykes also blocked out more air time for playing music videos and changed his play list considerably. Formerly, VH-1 showed a mix of 30 percent new videos and 70 percent old ones by artists like Phil Collins, Kenny G, Michael Bolton and Gloria Estefan, many of whom had been playing on the channel for years.

Mr. Sykes reversed this ratio, making more room for newer acts like Hootie and the Blowfish, Counting Crows and Gin Blossoms.

"What John is doing makes sense," said John Mandel, senior vice president and director of national broadcast for Grey Advertising in New York. "The network had gotten too old, and he's making it younger."

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