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The Future’s So Bright...

Given the American appetite for nostalgia, it should come as no surprise that VH1 Classic exists.

Launched by Viacom-owned music behemoth VH1 in 2000, it is a 24-hour network that presents music videos, concerts, and music specials featuring classic rock, soul, and pop artists from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Every wonder what happened to Haircut 100? How about Flock of Seagulls? What about some obscure one-hit-wonder band from 1971? Chances are, VH1 Classic will have featured any of the above at one point during its programming. As far as programming goes, the video channel is unique in its market.

Together, Mike Garvey, VH1 Classic director of music programming and production and Eric Sherman, general manager, are basically the channel’s “showrunners.” The clincher is, they run a network, not a show.

The real difference between running a show versus a network is that with a show, there is more of a sense of the finite: “With one show, it’s usually a finite period of time—you don’t know if it’s going to get picked up or how long it’s going to go,” said Sherman. “With VH1 Classic, I know we’re in this for the long run. I’m not looking season to season to see whether or not we get renewed, whether we get picked up, but looking at the long-term growth of a business.”

Indeed, the original vision of the channel was to create an outlet on television for music from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. It was launched because, as Sherman put it, “There are all sorts of facts and figures about how this is one of the most vital segments of the music business—there is an active, vibrant audience around this music.” At first, the channel started off just airing music videos, without VJs to introduce them and very little other types of programming. Now, it’s a full-fledged service, with host breaks every hour, promos, and special programming, such as a recent Thanksgiving Day special where such former pop luminaries as Debbie Gibson, Dee Snyder of Twisted Sister, and Gloria Gaynor sat down for a formal, catered Thanksgiving feast in front of the camera for a few hours of programming that will be cut-down and used as interstitials during the holiday.

Production Junction

Because the channel’s programming still primarily comprises large blocks of music videos interspersed with host reads, putting it all together is in some ways a lot like episodic television. The host reads are usually shot on Monday and Tuesday, edited on Wednesday and Thursday, with Friday usually being a pick-up or office-work day. When there is special programming, such as the Thanksgiving Day special mentioned earlier, it is usually shot on Wednesday.

All of VH1 Classic’s programming is aired from tape; nothing is live. It is shot mainly with Ikegami HLV55 Betacams, although Garvey said his production crew has been experimenting with 24p cameras.

The crew has also been experimenting with multiple camera shoots. “We do the majority of our week-to-week business—our host reads—with just one camera. But we’ve been getting into multiple camera shoots between the performances that we taped,” said Garvey. The channel did this with the Thanksgiving Day special, employing five cameras.

“When you use multiple cameras, you open yourself up to more interesting shots,” said Garvey. “And certainly, in the performances that we taped, it’s critical, because who wants to watch a performance of just one locked-off shot?”

Garvey said his crew doesn’t employ many “tricks” in terms of camera shots, except with the host reads. “Certainly there are tricks we use with just one camera where we can make the viewer believe that there’s a second camera by just doing a cutaway shot,” he said. “For instance, one of our hosts would start a sentence, and they’re going to go to the second graph of whatever they’re reading—we change the camera angle, they make a turn—and it actually looks like it’s a second camera picking up the read and the thought.”

In terms of audio, hosts (VJs) are hooked up to Electrosonic mics and Sennheiser boom mics are spread throughout the room. For performances or other types of special events, VH1 Classic will outsource an audio production company to do the sound.

Most of the host reads are prepared only two weeks out and special programming a few months in advance: “It’s just a simple fact that we have a small production staff, and given where we’re at, that makes the most sense,” said Garvey. “We don’t tend to project out much beyond two to three months, at the very most at this point.”

Going Back To The Old School

Given that it’s a channel built on the past, much of the “look” of VH1 Classic is retro. This is reflected first and foremost in the design of the primary set used for host reads and other types of programming. Located in New York City’s West Village, the set is designed to look like a cross between a record shop and a music aficionado’s basement rec room. Vintage album covers line the walls, and a bookshelf filled top to bottom with albums is visible in the background. “The set is one of the main vehicles we use, visually,” said Garvey.

The channel also brands itself with its retro-style promos for different music blocks. The artwork on the promos is heavily reminiscent of the kind of graphics produced in the 1970s, before computer animation and CGI became widespread in the industry. It looks very similar to concert poster art and fonts used in that era.

“The look of the channel is basically a sort of 2D, hand-drawn, flat type of look,” said Grant Stuart, director of VH1 digital channels and off-air creative. “There’s not a lot of animation, but we are kind of pushing those boundaries currently on some of the new packaging we’re developing. We want to try to add a little bit more animation, some more texture and depth to what we produced—but still keep that 2D style intact.”

One unique element of many of VH1 Classic’s promos is a kind of “cut-out” look, where stills from actual videos look to be pasted onto a cartoon-like background and animated. “With those,” said Stuart, “we basically drew over the video [clip] and just kept the live action sequence from the video itself.”

Most of the graphics and other visual elements of the channel are produced in Adobe After Effects. The graphics team works closely with the team scoring the music in order to make the two elements mesh seamlessly. “We really work hand-in-hand with anyone who is scoring the packages,” said Stuart.

Thirty Mil And Counting

As far as cable networks go, VH1 Classic is seeing success. Upon its launch, it was delivered to three million homes. Now it can be seen in 30 million. For Sherman, the channel is still in its infancy. “It’s going to grow in all sorts of ways,” he said. For example, although the channel is currently commercial-free, management is looking to bring some sponsorship to the table. When that day comes, it’s unlikely VH1 Classic won’t be able to deliver a target audience to its advertisers, either: “We like to say this is a channel that books itself,” said Sherman. “We’ve had very little resistance from the artists’ community. VH1 Classic is the only channel that focuses on this music.” The future looks pretty bright for VH1 Classic. So bright...well, you know the rest of the song.