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How VH1 Anticipated the Second Screen

The web destroyed the need for a music channel, so a Twitter-friendly network emerged in its wake

Kristian Hammerstad
Kristian Hammerstad

We talk about TV all the time, but we hardly talk about all the TV. This week, we’re looking at the shows, people, and networks that we know people love — that we love — but typically fall outside of the critical hivemind. This is TV Airing in Plain Sight.

Somehow in 2015, VH1 was still playing music videos. The channel’s Top 20 Countdown, on the air for more than two decades, had been an enduring cable television staple. The fledgling network, originally called “Video Hits One,” launched the countdown in 1994, the same year it unveiled a redesigned logo with the tagline “Music First.” Top 20 was always a low-key affair compared to the flamboyant Total Request Live, but it outlasted its MTV cousin by seven years, even if the VH1 show had become a weekly anachronism by the end of its run.

The show unceremoniously aired its final episode last November, just as the second season of Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood was reaching its conclusion. The Love & Hip-Hop season finale was the biggest non-sports show on cable on November 23 among 18- to 49-year-olds, attracting 2.4 million viewers. It returned in August to a similarly sized audience, leading all programming in the key demo. It’s the flagship program of a revamped VH1 that has a relationship with the world of music that is, at this point, incidental. Love & Hip-Hop’s characters — artists, significant others, managers, stylists — exist within the orbit of music, but the show succeeds because of its soap opera storylines, heightened by the added tension that someone just might get punched the fuck out.

How did a channel once synonymous with placid dad-rock become the home for a lurid roster of reality shows, including Love & Hip-Hop, Basketball Wives, and the very-accurately-titled Dating Naked? The answer lies in part on the second screen. VH1 was an early pioneer in the art of television snark, casting an askance view of the celebrities that were being deified one channel over on MTV in the ’90s and early 2000s. Later, smartphones and social media made us all into cable TV talking heads, all the time. Mix that with the surprise mega-success of Flavor of Love, which convinced the network to double down on reality TV targeting black audiences, and you have a network in 2016 that’s garnering millions of eyeballs and tweets every week.

Former VH1 president John Sykes has described the network’s first decade of existence as “the bastard stepchild of MTV.” The network was launched by Viacom in 1985 as a free add-on to cable packages that took MTV in a bid to kill off a competing music channel launched by Ted Turner. Like early MTV, music videos made up the bulk of the channel’s programming, and upstart VJs included Don Imus and Rosie O’Donnell. But as the network’s focus shifted away from music (for the first of many times), ratings sagged. By 1994, Sykes decided the network needed a new slogan: “Music First.”

Pop Up Video, launched in 1996, was a key element of the network’s new strategy. The show melded superimposed annotations on the most popular music videos of the day with trivia and deadpan humor. And it had a healthy dose of nostalgia as well, with each episode featuring a video from the primordial era of music television. It wasn’t so much a celebration of music videos as a celebration of our right to overanalyze music videos. It was a close reading of pop culture delivered via childlike bubbles and a throwback jingle of a theme song. “Pop Up beat Twitter to its own game,” VH1 programming executive Shelly Tatro said in 2011 before a short-lived revival of the program.

By 2002, the format had grown stale, and the music industry was in the midst of a decade-long crisis because of the rise of online piracy. VH1 needed a new gimmick, one less focused on playing music. That fall, the network launched I Love the ’80s, a 10-hour nostalgic romp (or, if you were a kid like me, a pop culture history lesson) through the previously unheralded decade, enlisting D-list celebrities to make extremely obvious jokes about mullets. Topics ranged from the Atari 2600, to the “Where’s the beef?” commercial, to the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan (they also occasionally discussed music). The show was a hit, so suddenly the same talking heads also loved the ’70s, and the ’90s, and the ’80s again. Impatient producers even shoved the 2000s retrospective I Love the New Millennium out the door in 2008.

The I Love the … franchise arrived just as home internet access was becoming widespread. Before the web, pop culture followed a linear trajectory. Whatever you didn’t remember or own on VHS was essentially out of reach — unless it happened to be in syndication on cable. Then suddenly, the internet allowed us to double back and reevaluate the pop culture that had come before. I Love the ’80s was the first syllabus, but every modern BuzzFeed listicle and painstaking oral history invites us to do the same nostalgic exercises.

Eventually VH1 producers figured out you didn’t need the wisdom imparted by years of thoughtful reflection to make fun of celebrities. Best Week Ever, which debuted in 2004, took the I Love the ’80s format and applied it to the current day. It was snark about pop culture minutiae unfolding almost in real time. Collectively these shows taught a younger generation that pop-obsessiveness was not just for tabloids and the entertainment shows that followed the six o’clock news. Pop commentary was for everyone, and could extend to anything that was well-liked or well-known.

At the same time the network was cashing in on nostalgia and snark, it hopped aboard the reality television money train. In the mid-2000s, there were already plenty of reality shows about normal people put in extreme situations — like Survivor — and a fair number following the “ordinary” lives of very famous people — like The Osbournes. But what if you took sort-of-famous people and put them in sort-of-weird scenarios? The network started calling this odd concoction “Celebreality.”

The Surreal Life was the jumping-off point. The show was a Real World for has-been celebrities, the series getting jettisoned from The WB after two seasons and then picked up by VH1 in 2004. The first season on VH1 featured Flavor Flav, who was later given a pair of romantic spinoffs, Strange Love, about his relationship with Surreal Life housemate Brigitte Nielsen, and Flavor of Love, a Bachelor-type dating game in which women competed for Flav’s affection. All of these increasingly outlandish conceits were dreamed up by Mark Cronin and Cris Abrego, a pair of L.A. producers whose production company, 51 Minds, supplied the bulk of VH1’s reality hits in the late 2000s.

Flavor of Love became a ratings juggernaut and the most popular VH1 show of all time. In both tone and demographic makeup, it was different from the reality shows that came before it. “Up until that point, reality TV on network television had been almost entirely white,” says Jennifer Pozner, a media critic and author of Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty Pleasure TV. “By the time VH1 launched Flavor of Love, it was a counterpoint to six years of network television dating shows and four years of the most influential member of that genre, which is The Bachelor and The Bachelorette.”

The show attracted eyeballs but also harsh critics. Pozner argues that Flavor of Love reinforced negative stereotypes of women of color, portraying them as brash, vulgar, and violent. The show emerged during a time when there was a dearth of black programming, after the plethora of ’90s black sitcoms had gone off the air but before the rise of Shonda Rhimes’s black-led hits Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. “Is it more of a blessing or a curse to have visibility when it’s so destructive?” Pozner asks. “[VH1] did a great job for themselves economically, but at a real cost to our cultural understanding of who we are.”

The “comedic game show” genre, as VH1’s then-president called it at the time, was lucrative for a few years, spawning numerous iterations such as I Love New York, Rock of Love, and Charm School. As the gimmick was growing tired, a contestant on a pair of VH1 reality shows, Ryan Jenkins, was charged in the killing of his wife and killed himself shortly afterward. VH1 shelved the shows featuring Jenkins — I Love Money 3 and Megan Wants a Millionaire — and hasn’t found much success with dating shows since.

Between the pop culture snark of I Love the 80s and Best Week Ever and the parodic reality TV found on Flavor of Love, VH1 had moved far afield of “video hits” by the end of the 2000s. The number of music video spins on the network nearly halved between 1999 and 2012. But the programs that replaced the videos were running out of steam. VH1 needed yet another reinvention, so it crafted yet another new kind of show — and a new platform to engage the show’s audience — to climb back atop the Nielsen charts.

At the beginning of this decade, VH1 pivoted to a new iteration of “Celebreality.” Instead of building a narrative around one very famous person, the shows would be about the people who exist in the celebrity orbit. The genre was pioneered on Bravo, where “Bravolebrities” were made out of the women from the Real Housewives franchise. VH1’s first crack at the format was Basketball Wives. But the version that’s most popular on television and, crucially, online, is Love & Hip-Hop.

Launched in 2011, the series was originally pitched as a show about the rapper Jim Jones, but the focus shifted to his longtime girlfriend, Chrissy Lampkin, and her network of rap-adjacent girlfriends. Unlike the women of Flavor of Love, Love & Hip-Hop’s characters were presented with a variety of motivations: to land a record deal, to escape a failing relationship, to get married. The combination of romantic and professional motivations was a rare mix on reality TV. The soapy plots arced over multiple seasons, with new characters joining the tightly-knit and highly volatile groups that, through reality TV contrivances, seemed to spend every waking hour hanging out together.

As the characters on the show gossip over cocktails, viewers do the same on Twitter. The show has an avid online following that live-tweets every episode. Monday’s episode of Love & Hip-Hop: Hollywood, one of the New York iteration’s two spinoffs, elicited tens of thousands of tweets, many accompanied by reaction GIFs. The Love & Hip-Hop: New York Season 6 premiere last December received more than 400,000 tweets, topping the social activity for Monday Night Football that week. Today, watching television with a rolling feed of biting commentary isn’t a Pop Up Video quirk. It’s standard.

Both the show’s characters and producers are well aware of these online discussions. In the past, reality shows often lived in an artificial bubble, closed off from the internet. But the online world plays a central role on Love & Hip-Hop. Lots of semi-fictional feuds are sparked because someone posts a real-world diss track on worldstarhiphop.com. And the show’s writers use fan sentiment to help map out future storylines. “You may see that cast members that are bigger in social media playing bigger roles in future seasons of Love & Hip Hop,” former VH1 marketing executive Tom Chirico told Digital Trends. “They’re actually using social popularity to inform the show.” The producers have created an odd paradox. They bring the show closer to the real world by relying on Twitter, while also illustrating that the story arcs are artificial entertainment.

Take this summer’s pregnancy arc between hip-hop producer Stevie J and his longtime girlfriend/possible wife Joseline Hernandez, which played out both online and on the show. The Love & Hip-Hop: Atlanta star posted a picture of her baby bump on Instagram on July 4, right in the middle of the show’s fifth season, in which she is decidedly not pregnant. Fans took to Twitter to ask Stevie J if he was the father, but he would offer only the coy response, “Time reveals all things.” (VH1 diligently reports every digital twist and turn of the Love & Hip-Hop arcs on its website). In the season reunion special, which aired in August, Joseline “shocked” the show producers by revealing that she was pregnant, then confronted Stevie J to tell him the news. The moment is depicted as if it’s more important than anything else on Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta. Camera equipment creeps into the corner of the frame and you watch Joseline interact with behind-the-scenes producers — but the stars had been telegraphing the revelation online for weeks. A television show set the stage for a social media subplot which led fans right back to the show to witness the climax. This is the reality TV beast eating its own tail.

Love & Hip-Hop has earned some of the same critiques as VH1’s past reality fare for doubling down on stereotypes. Viewers have even launched petitions calling for boycotts of the show and the network. But franchise creator Mona Scott-Young, who was an entertainment manager herself, has defended the show’s authenticity. “There’s a lot of backlash about how African American women are represented [in the show], but we’re talking about a specific set of women navigating a specific world that has specific challenges and hurdles,” she explained in Fader. “The show was never designed to be a total portrait; it’s a view of these women, unique to the world they live in. Love & Hip Hop is a labor of love, and it comes from a very personal place: managing these guys for years, seeing the women in their lives, getting to know them.” (Scott-Young did not respond to an interview request.)

Now five years and three cities in, the franchise has proven more resilient than some of the past television trends VH1 has capitalized on, and it’s led the network to another highly lucrative era. VH1, which maintained a stalwart focus on music videos long after MTV had abandoned them, seemed like the network most likely to be felled by the internet. Instead, the channel intuited the things that would drive the digital click-economy — celebrity, salaciousness, nostalgia (I didn’t even get to VH1’s intense obsession with lists) — and put them to work on old-school cable. Now it has three of the five most popular unscripted cable shows among audiences 18–49, and it’s the fastest-growing entertainment network, according to a spokesperson.

Even when Love & Hip Hop’s popularity eventually fades, there’s no doubt VH1 will offer up a new cocktail of addictive, vapid television. The network has been teaching us how to consume pop culture like fast food for two decades. And it has a habit of rising from the dead like a phoenix — or a cockroach, depending on your perspective.