VH1 Classic SUCKS!!! A Review
I gave up watching VH1 Classic around 2008. With the financial crisis I needed to cut back on expenses, so digital cable was out. But by then I had grown so fed up with VH1 Classic that I was no longer watching the channel.
A few weeks ago I was asked to review a new show that would be airing on VH1 Classic. Garry Dell'Abate and Jon Hein from The Howard Stern Show now had their own cable show called For What It's Worth where they travel the country visiting collectors and looking at their collections. And yes, the series is as boring as it sounds. The thing is, For What It's Worth is on VH1 Classic. So I ended up having to reinstall the digital channels, and for the first time in five years, watch the disappointing wreckage of yet another MTV owned channel. If a show about collections does not sound like something that belongs on a retro music video themed channel, even if most of those collections are music themed, then you too have not watched VH1 Classic in years, and have not seen how far it has fallen.
Lets start back in 2001. MTV was a goner as a music video channel. Although MTV had been built on a campaign that asked Rock fans everywhere to pester their cable companies to add the 24 hour music video channel, and became one of the highest rated basic cable channels of the '80s and '90s thanks to fans of popular music, the executives at MTV decided they would rather have a channel that aired something else. Viewers of the original MTV felt betrayed as the schedule was taken over by cartoons, reality shows and bad sketch comedy while the videos that had made MTV a phenomenon in the first place were pushed to the overnight hours. VH1 was also a goner. Originally an Adult Contemporary music channel, they had reformatted to popular and classic music to lure over the disenfranchised MTV viewers, but then almost immediately decided they too wanted to abandon music programming for something called celebreality.
And there was MTV2, the channel that MTV promised would always be a music channel. MTV2 was supposed to be eclectic, airing any and every possible music video in the vast MTV archives. But the viewers who could get MTV2 complained that there was very little of this eclectic programming, rather MTV2 had a tighter video rotation than MTV. To appease them MTV2 had announced an A-Z marathon that was to last a few months, and play every single music video in the MTV library in alphabetical order. When viewers began complaining that videos were being skipped, and those complaints were picked up by the press, MTV2 was forced to admit that they were not actually going to play every video in the MTV library. The excuse given was that they needed to cut videos from the marathon whenever a VJ segment ran long, which apparently happened on all 1500 VJ segments that aired during the marathon. By the end MTV2 was dropping more than a few videos at a time, and now the excuse was they suddenly had a pressing need to cut the marathon short and get back to regular programming. Viewers hoping to see music videos that had not aired in years were gravely disappointed by the marathon which gave up precious few lost gems from the MTV vaults. With the marathon behind them MTV2 slowly began to abandon it's promise of being 24/7 music, and began airing reruns of non-music shows from MTV.
...And Then Came VH1 Classic...
VH1 Classic showed up as a surprise. I had heard little about MTV and VH1's other digital channels. MTV was putting all their promotion into MTV2. In the summer of 2001 my cable bill came with a note announcing that on September 29 they would be adding VH1 Classic, a 24 hour classic music video channel. By this time I had my doubts. For one, MTV2 had turned out to be a massive disappointment, nothing like the channel they had promised in their promotions. And there was MTV followed by VH1 abandoning music for reality based programming. Why would I trust another channel from the same organization?
I also had my doubts about VH1's ability to air retro videos. A few years earlier, when VH1 was attempting to lure the disenfranchised MTV viewers, it began airing retro videos. It's biggest hit was a show called The Big 80s, each episode of which aired five random music videos from that decade. But they seemed to be stuck with the same 300 videos from the 80s, and aired nothing more. Watching the video for Toni Basil's Mickey may have been a thrill when I had not seen it in over a decade, but by the time it had aired for the tenth time on The Big 80s, I was bored with it. And there were thousands of other videos from the 80s that never aired, a few hundred more at least which were for top 40 hits. The Big 80s only accounted for no more than four hours a week, and by the third month the show had nothing new to offer. A 24 hour version of The Big 80s would run through all of it's videos in a day.
To VH1 Classic's credit, it had more than 300 videos in it's rotation. Somewhere around 2,000 clips. That may sound like a lot of videos, but even on an 8 hour daily broadcast wheel, the channel went through everything they had in less than a month. About half the clips shown on the channel were not even proper promotional videos, but performance clips isolated from various VH1 and MTV concerts and specials, with a few dozen performances isolated from the German show Musicladen thrown in.
Someone who found VH1 Classic entertaining was Entertainment Weekly's Brian Raftery, who praised the channel in his article Hooked On Classic. "At the risk of sounding a bit hyperbolic," Raftery wrote, "can we just say that VH1 Classic is the greatest channel ever in the history of the world? " Whether he was being sarcastic, or legitimately loved watching the channel is not clear, but millions of viewers agreed with his words. For most music video fans that got VH1 Classic for the first time, the first month was thrilling. But then the rapidity set in. After half a year the average viewer grew bored, and wondered why the channel kept showing the same videos over and over again. For me, the channel was never that much exciting. As I said, I had watched the series The Big 80s, along with all the other retro shows that VH1 offered during the late 90s. Aside from the live performance clips, there were very few videos airing on VH1 Classic that I had not already taped off of VH1 only a couple of years earlier.
The VH1 Classic Viewer Forum
I was ready to quickly abandon VH1 Classic as a waste of my time. There were thousands of music videos filmed in the 80s. If VH1 Classic just stuck to airing the ones for top 40 hits, there would still be way more than just 2,000. And here was a channel that also featured music from the 60s and 70s. ( and by the way, VH1 Classic's selection from the 60s and 70s was very dismal. Only about 40 clips, most of which were isolated performances from contemporary reunion concerts with only half the original band members. ) A smart programmer would use every single video from those three decades he had access to, even ones for songs that were never hits, to pad out the video rotation for months instead of one month. It could take years for any viewer to see everything instead of four weeks. But the programmers at VH1 Classic were either not smart, or not interested in maintaining viewers.
The only thing of interest VH1 Classic had to offer was it's web page on the VH1 website. More specifically, it's members forum. Here viewers from across the country voiced their growing frustrations with the channel, and discussed their memories of music videos from the past that had not aired anywhere in years. It was good to see that I was not the only person in the country who was disappointed with the current music video channels. I became a lurker who read the VH1 Classic message board every day. It was more exciting than the channel itself.
I was not the only one lurking on the VH1 Classic forum. So were the channels programmers. In 2002 they decided to join in. Under the screen name ClassicTeam, unidentified staff members from VH1 Classic began talking with it's viewers. ClassicTeam swore the channel's library had more than those same 2,000 videos, claiming they had at least ten times more that had not aired yet. They promised they would eventually get to airing them, but offered no explanation as to the hold up.
Then around July they promised the viewers something that sounded too good to be true. Not satisfied with the videos that the programmer was picking? Then send in your suggestions and those videos will air later that summer as part of an all request weekend. And it was too good to be true. The request weekend was to have aired on June 22 and 32, but was pushed back for a week with the explanation that they had received so many requests that they would need the extra week to sort through all of them. But even with the extra week, when the request weekend finally rolled around, every request picked was for a video that had already aired on the channel before.
Viewers on the forum wanted to know why. ClassicTeam explained that they were overwhelmed, and to be as fair as possible they picked the videos that got multiple requests. And the ones that got the most requests just happened to be the same ones that were part of the channels 2,000 rotation.
I know bulls#it when I read it. And here was bulls#it so thick it could drown a city. The purpose of the request weekend was to allow viewers to pick the videos that the programmer was not. It was not there so that Michael Jackson's Beat It could air again for the 100th time. ClassicTeam acted as if they had no choice but to air the same rotation videos, as if there would be some sort of mass protest if Wham! U.K.'s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go did not air during the request weekend instead of the following Monday as usual. The universal complaint among all VH1 Classic viewers was the repetitiveness of the same few videos, and they expect us to believe that when given the opportunity, those same viewers requested the same videos they were complaining about?
And yet, ClassicTeam stringed the channel's viewers along for another five years promising to get to the rest of the videos. Apologizing for the request weekend, as if the end results were out of their control, ClassicTeam announced that a daily request hour was to start in the following fall. Surely a daily request hour would eventually air videos not already on the channel, right? But even with it's promo that dared the viewers to request the oddest and most obscure videos they wanted, the first three months of the All Request Hour aired nothing but rotation videos. In fact, by the following January some of those videos had made their appearance on the request hour for the third time, while the non-rotation videos were still no-shows.
There is just so long any channel can pull this scam before even the most gullible viewer begins to realize the request show is a fraud. But here were hundreds of VH1 Classic viewers on the same forum, with untold thousands of others lurking just like I was, and all of them agreeing that VH1 Classic was not airing viewer requests, unless those requests were for something already on the channel. Even with a "request show" the viewers of VH1 Classic were stuck with the same 2,000 videos.
By February ClassicTeam had run out of excuses. Just as the forum members were giving up hope, non-rotation requests began to air on the request hour. It started with one single request answered for a non-rotation video. One single video, The Catholic Girls video for Boys Can Cry, and the forum came alive. Even if only a fraction of the viewers cared about the ultra obscure all girl punk band from the UK, there was mass excitement that something different had finally aired on the channel. A few days later there was a request show with two non-rotation videos. A day after that three non-rotation videos. Outside the request hour, the channel began to add new videos to it's rotation. On the forum viewers began to count these adds as fulfilled requests. They began calling videos new to the channel adds. Whenever an add video aired, one of the viewers would post an "ALERT" thread, as in ALLERT: Catholic Girls "Boys Can Cry" on today's ARH!!! By the end of February the entire front page of the forum was filled with alert threads. And since the channel aired on an 8 hour cycle, viewers reading the alerts could catch one of the two repeats. Add requests were of great value. There was at least one request hour that had almost nothing but add requests.
And Then It All Came To An End
About 1000 music videos and performance clips were added to the rotation of VH1 Classic. But just a suddenly as the channel began adding videos, they stopped. By April the add videos had dropped to a trickle of only a couple a week. Then came a two year drought of no adds that did not end until the summer of 2004 when VH1 Classic began airing 90s videos. MTV had decided to eliminate VH1 Mega Hits and replace it with the new LOGO network. Mega Hits was the channel that aired videos from the 90s, so VH1 decided to move that programming over to VH1 Classic. VH1 Classic in turn decided to alter their directive of "just videos from the 60s, 70s and 80s" to "Any video that is ten years or older". So their 90s videos had a cut off date of 1995. In addition, there was an emphasis on popular alternative music while dance club music, that era's other popular genre, was completely ignored.
Amazing as it seems, even with the 90s adds, VH1 Classic began airing less videos in rotation as many of their other rotation videos were inexplicably pulled. The 8 hour wheel was replaced with a 12 hour wheel for about a year, then finally replaced with 24 hour programming. There was no longer any chance to catch a video during a repeat. Despite promises from ClassicTeam that the channel was not going to follow in the footsteps of MTV and VH1, they began to air movies, along with blocks of "I Love The 70s" and "I Love The 80s" along with other old VH1 shows. The music videos were disappearing.
The All Request Hour continued on until 2007 when, despite VH1's claims that it was one of the highest viewed programs on digital cable, it was cancelled. After February of 2002 add requests dropped to about four or five a month, down to four or five in a year. By the last the last two years of their request show they were no longer airing any requests for videos not already in rotation. Despite this, they still continued to run the promo claiming they would play any request no matter how offbeat or obscure the video was. The vigilant members of the forum discovered a few disturbing facts about the request hour. Three times during the show the host Lynn Hoffman would read the email of the requestee, and a member keeping track discovered the same names popping up again and again. One person seemed to request the same video three times, each time claiming in his email he had never seen it on the channel before. Viewers began to suspect that the emails were, in fact, names of interns, and the requests were nothing more than pre-picked rotation videos.
One other very disturbing trend discovered. While ClassicTeam claimed they needed to play the videos that got the most requests in order to appease the most viewers, they had no problem pranking viewers at every opportunity. The prank usually worked like this: A legitimate email request was read begging to see a video, and then instead something different would be played. Someone would request Curly Shuffle by Jump In The Saddle, and instead Culture Club's Miss Me Blind would air. The first time this happened was when someone requested Holiday by Nazareth, and instead Party Train by Love Tractor aired, but with the chyron for Holiday over it. While the first time this happened it may have been a mistake, Lynn read many emails in the months that followed informing the Classic Team that they had played the wrong video. Lynn would apologize, say "Here is the video you really wanted.", and proceed to play Party Train again with the Holiday chyron on it. After Lynn read the fourth email explaining this mistake and still played the wrong video again, there was no mistake she was pranking the viewers. The Classic Team also took advantage of the poor viewers who made the mistake of requesting alternate videos. Someone would request Dan Hartman's I Can Dream About You, but asked for the version that actually had Dan Hartman, rather than the version that showed nothing but clips from the movie Streets of Fire. Lynn would thank them for their request, tell them "Here is the video you have been dying to see.", and proceed to play the Streets of Fire version instead.
Despite all the evidence that the Classic Team ( who was no longer bothering to post responses on the forum anymore ) was quite deliberately treating their own viewers like crap, the forum members continued to hold out hope that they could get their requests to air on the request hour. They even took a few necessary steps to insure success. One excuse ClassicTeam gave was that "occasionally a video being requested is 'restricted' and they are unable to play it." Restricted meant that the channel no longer had clearance to play that particular video, and would need to get permission from the record label if they wanted to air it on the channel again. The restriction excuse was used during MTV2's A-Z marathon as one of the reasons so many videos were being skipped. But since MTV2's website was keeping track of the videos they actually played, this left behind a list of thousands of music videos that MTV Networks had clearance to air on their channels. VH1 Classic viewers began using that list to pick their requests. But even though viewers were now requesting videos that were confirmed to be unrestricted, and existed in their video library, they never turned up during the request hour.
The request hour was the last straw. Confirmation that VH1 Classic was going to keep repeating the same month worth of videos over and over again. And they loved playing sadistic tricks on their own viewers. There was really no point in watching that channel any more. After the request hour was cancelled, participation on the forum dropped off to almost nothing. A couple of years back I ran into someone who had worked at Viacom during the days of VH1 Classic's request hour. He claimed that despite the show's title "All request hour" they actually only aired three requests per show, from the three emails that Lynn read. All the other videos were filler that was rotated. And yes, they did go through those three emails looking specifically for rotation requests.
In a 2005 interview for Hollywood Reporter, then General Manager for the channel Eric Sherman claimed that all 11-14 slots in the request hour were filled with requests. He also claimed that the channel had a 20,000 clip video library for the viewers to select their requests from. But it turns out that was all a lie. Even if VH1 Classic had access to that many videos, Eric Sherman had no intention of ever airing all of them. It should be no surprise to tell you that Eric Sherman was the President of MTV2 during it's botched A-Z marathon, or that he had introduced the request hour on MTV2 that also played nothing but requests for rotation videos. ( Even worse than VH1 Classic's All Request Hour, the MTV2 request hour was known for repeating the same heavy rotation videos every other night. At least the Classic request hour took about three weeks for any video to repeat. )
Five Years Later..
VH1 Classic has a iN Demand channel which I had thought would have episodes of For What It's Worth. Their iN Demand channel once had their other in-house produced program That Metal Show. But after accepting the assignment, I discovered that the show I needed to, review was not available on the iN Demand channel. I would need to reinstall the digital cable. Fortunately a representative from my cable company offered me a deal where the reinstalled digital channels would not cost that much. But are those channels worth the extra money? If VH1 Classic is any indication, then the answer is NO.
Despite all the promises made by the Classic Team years ago, VH1 Classic is no longer a music video channel. For What It's Worth is their first regular in-house series that is not music based, and I suspect some sort of reality show with misfits is soon to follow. When I gave up the channel five years ago they had already begun airing movies. At least then the movies starred popular recording artists. Among the movies now playing on the channel are License to Drive ( 1988 ), Top Gun ( 1986 ), Love Potion #9 ( 1992 ), Honeymoon in Vegas ( 1992 ), Beverly Hills Cop ( 1984 ) and the Austin Powers movies. They also air reruns of Married With Children, The Larry Sanders Show and The Adventures of Bullwinkle & Rocky.
As for the original draw of the channel, the retro music videos, like the other MTV channels, they are only shown during the off-off hours. And even though it has been five years, as far as I can tell they have added no videos since 2006. They seem to have not even progressed beyond 1994, even though their 10 year old edict should allow them to play videos from 2003.
There is only one way to describe the channel. It sucks. If Brian Raftery were to write another article on the channel, he too would say it sucked. And the worst part is, it sucks when there is no reason it should. It is a channel that has spent it's past ten years on deliberate self destruct mode. It had it's loyal viewers, and went out of it's way to piss them off. It could have built a substantial following by airing every one of those damn 20,000 videos it claims it has locked up in it's library, and on top of that taking the time to expand that library tenfold by asking for remasters from the record labels. Youtube has been doing that for a while, and at current you can watch HD copies of thousands of hit retro videos that VH1 Classic has never aired.
It has been said that the music video channels MTV Networks launch are just place holders for some other channel to follow. If so, there is absolutely no incentive for them to succeed as a music video channel. In that case VH1 Classic was designed to fail, and the fact that Brian Raftery and millions of other viewers had temporarily made it their favorite channel was nothing more than a nuisance. They would only make it that much harder when VH1 decided it was time to pull the plug and use the signal to launch their reality channel. Millions of viewers complaining at the same time that their favorite video channel was taken away. Cable companies across the contanent wondering WTF?? and why would they kill off a channel that was a ratings bonanza? Bad press all around. It would be so much easier if that same channel had a gradual decline in it's viewership. People like me who were driven away from the channel, and were not around to see the videos replaced with the same old network reruns and censored theatrical movies. Another boring cable channel. And another reason why I am asking myself why I am wasting so much money subscribing to cable channels I have no interest in.
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