VH1's Anchor Series Enters Fifth Season to Big Ratings

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NEW YORK ( -- Narrator Jim Forbes has just finished taping the opening segment of episode 167 of VH1's series Behind the Music. He's set the stage for the story of singer Mary J. Blige's rise from Bronx blight to the top of the music world, a tale that includes classic Behind the Music material:
Photo: AP
'It's Shakespeare with a happy ending,' says VH1 president John Sykes
a broken home, broken relationships and bouts with substance abuse.

As he evaluates his performance, Mr. Forbes, who reads the scripts cold to add a sense of freshness and discovery, appears vexed. "It's so easy to sound like a caricature of myself on this with the drugs, the alcohol," he worries. "I fight hard not to go there."

Part of pop culture
Mr. Forbes may be fighting an uphill battle as the hour-long documentary slides into its fifth season. In a nod to how much the show has become part of pop culture, both Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons, among others, have spoofed it extensively.

"The show's approach to the subject -- and you can probably only do it with rock stars -- is wonderfully satirical and informative at the same time," said Tim Brooks, a TV historian and senior vice president of research at the Lifetime network. "It's almost like a KISS concert. It's so over the top, it's fun, and that's part of what's made it so attractive."

Mr. Forbes, a longtime TV journalist, prefers it to be known more for the informative, but concedes the show's certain comic quality. He does what he can to avoid making quintessential Behind the Music phrases such as "It took a brush with death for Mary [J. Blige] to learn how to celebrate life" come off as overwrought.

Nevertheless, the show has settled into a reliable five-act formula: the humble beginnings, the big break, the success, the crash and finally the redemption -- whether Ms. Blige

Photo: AP
One of the redeemed: Shania Twain.
or Shania Twain. "The joke around the office is it's Shakespeare with a happy ending," said VH1 President John Sykes. "Instead of ending in a tragedy, there's an act to leave the audience happy and with hope."

Guaranteed happy ending
Maybe it's the guaranteed happy ending, or the mea culpa on-screen talk from the musicians (VH1 only does a show with their cooperation). Or maybe it's the largely anonymous Mr. Forbes. "There's a comfort zone there with his voice," said Sean Moran, VH1's director of ad sales.

Whatever the reason, Behind the Music continues to serve as a signature show and profit center for VH1, part of Viacom's MTV Networks group. VH1 executives don't sell the program separately, making advertisers purchase blocks of time that may intersect with the show but also run during less desirable programming. The network does, however, offer quarterly sponsorships that run from $500,000 and $1 million.

In this down market, VH1 appears to have found a way to leverage the show's appeal. Nielsen Monitor-Plus figures show total network ad intake increased 17% to $204.5 million through the first three quarters of this year compared with the same period last year. Looking ahead to 2002, a deal with Target Stores calls for a Behind the Music CD to be sold exclusively in the retailer, while Target will increase its spending as a quarterly sponsor.

Advertisers tout the wide appeal of Behind the Music, where a Bad Company episode can have cross-generation allure. "It appeals to older people who remember the groups and younger people who sort of learn about them," said Doug Seay, senior vice president and director of national broadcast at Publicis Groupe's Publicis & Hal Riney, New York, who has purchased time on the program for Sprint PCS and Hewlett-Packard Co.

Coveted demographic
At the same time, the show brings a reliable viewership in the 25- to 34-year-old demographic advertisers covet: Nielsen figures show an average of a 0.67 rating (an estimated 188,000 viewers) from early November 2000 through mid-November 2001, placing it among the top 10 on cable. In overall households, the average rating was a 0.57 (432,000 households), outside the top-rated 25 shows on cable.

A media buyer who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to an ongoing negotiation said, "It certainly gets buzz from viewers. People look forward to upcoming musicians on the show, and we're seeing a lot of other networks playing off of it."

Case in point: ABC's Nov. 22 special Being Mick about a year in the life of Mick Jagger. On Dec. 4, CourtTV will air a documentary titled The Secret History of Rock 'n' Roll, about when crime and musicians cross paths.

Behind the Music has allowed VH1 to branch into other businesses, such as books with Viacom co-division Simon & Schuster and a syndicated radio version. And there has been talk of a Behind the Music magazine, either as VH1 project or through a joint venture.

"We're still thinking through what the best way is for us to do something like that," said Reggie Fils-Aime, VH1's senior vice president of marketing.

'Biography' model
Behind the Music launched in 1997 in the midst of an experiment by niche cable networks with documentary-style programs. The shows -- Lifetime's Intimate Portrait and E's The E! True Hollywood Story, for example -- all followed the 1980s forerunner, A&E's Biography. And VH1's expansion of Behind the Music to off-screen ventures mirrors what A&E did with its Biography magazine.

"It's as important a franchise to VH1 as Biography is to A&E," Mr. Sykes said.

"The minute Behind the Music goes off, we won't buy as much of the network," said Publicis & Hal Riney's Mr. Seay.

All the more reason Mr. Sykes wants to ensure that VH1 "won't be the Behind the Music channel" and that the franchise remains fresh. The show will continue a weekly premiere, perhaps in the same Sunday 9 p.m. time slot, but the number of repeat episodes in a week are expected to drop to make room for new shows, including an animated one about a reporter at a fictitious magazine created by Time magazine humorist Joel Stein.

But a cutback in time slots does not mean Behind the Music has lost its importance as a VH1 anchor. The show, which costs about $175,000 to $200,000 an episode to produce, remains relatively inexpensive, at least compared to scripted shows. And VH1's library of episodes allow for special promotions like Behind the Music A to Z, when the network will run the show around the clock on New Year's weekend featuring artists from Aaliyah to an undisclosed Z. (Currently, Weird Al Yankovic is the last show alphabetically.)

Recognizable voice
Mr. Forbes's contract runs through 2002, and both he and Mr. Sykes expect it to be renewed. The show has been a boon for Mr. Forbes, whose voice is now as recognizable as Ed Grover's, known for the voice-over in Visa International commercials, and Don Pardo of Saturday Night Live fame. That, in turn, has led to other opportunities. He recently completed a series of radio spots for Pepsi-Cola Co.'s new drink Amp and a 22-episode series for ESPN Classic focusing on top sports stories in each of the cable network's 22 years.

The initial Behind the Music episodes on Milli Vanilli and M.C. Hammer ran with the voice-over of another man. It was Mr. Sykes who then insisted that Mr. Forbes, who he had heard on a test version, get the gig.

"Who's John Sykes?" Mr. Forbes asked. Mr. Sykes didn't know Mr. Forbes either -- just his voice.

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