One man largely symbolizes the divergent fortunes of sister stations MTV and VH1. Can you believe it’s Ozzy Osbourne? MTV has him, and the reality sitcom starring the frazzled heavy-metal legend and his family has become the kind of water-cooler hit that cable executives only dream of. “The Osbournes” has helped MTV build the biggest audience in its history.
VH1 doesn’t have him. It doesn’t have much of anything else that people are talking about, and that’s reflected in sinking ratings and management uncertainty over the future.
The two Viacom-owned companies are racing in opposite directions.
“Things seem to be working now at MTV,” said Van Toffler, the network’s president. “We have a great creative team. It’s a function of the fact that people aren’t afraid to take risks. They’re not afraid to fail, and we’ll take ideas from anybody.”
“The Osbournes” seemed like a risk on its face. It created its own genre – a show structured like a sitcom but featuring real people. And could America grow to love a family with a largely washed-up rock star, his manager wife and two high-strung children, all of whom swear prodigiously?
Then you watch, start laughing, and the answer seems obvious.
Within a month, the series has rivaled past MTV hits like “Jackass” and “Beavis & Butt-Head” and keeps growing. “The Osbournes” drew 4.1 million viewers to its regular Tuesday time slot on March 26, more popular than any series on cable except for professional wrestling. Striking while it’s hot, MTV now airs different episodes of “The Osbournes” 15 times a week.
“You have people in their 40s talking about MTV, which hasn’t happened in a while,” said Brad Adgate, research director at Horizon Media.
Having a program that viewers specifically seek out is invaluable in a TV world where the average family receives 89 channels yet watches only about 14 regularly, he said. MTV can use “The Osbournes” as a platform to promote its entire schedule.
MTV has a history of programs that burn hot and burn fast, cultural touchstones created by a young audience that quickly moves on to something new. One obvious exception is “Real World,” a ratings winner after a decade on the air that is quietly drawing viewers at nearly the pace of “The Osbournes.”
“We have to reinvent ourselves every few years,” Toffler said. “We’ve never sat back, gotten fat, rich and happy. Young people demand the change.”
For the first three months of this year, MTV averaged 541,000 viewers, up from 504,000 the same period last year. To be fair, its success is not all Osbournes. The music countdown show “Total Request Live” is still a hit in the afternoon, “Cribs,” which gives celebrity home tours, does very well, and so does the dating show, “Dismissed.”
“The Osbournes'” success has the network considering a similar behind-the-scenes look at a rap star’s life, Toffler said.
“It has accelerated our development of reality shows,” he said. “We’ve had a tougher time with more scripted material. I’m not sure our viewers expect that from MTV. They come to MTV for music and things that are a little fast-paced.”
One could argue that “The Osbournes” would have been a better fit for VH1 than MTV. MTV’s target audience wasn’t born during Ozzy Osbourne’s heyday with Black Sabbath; they relate more to his kids. At least VH1 has viewers who might have grown up with his music.
But it’s a moot point. VH1 doesn’t have him.
VH1 has had water-cooler shows in the past. “Pop-Up Videos” was much imitated, and the trashy “Behind the Music” melodramas about the rise and fall of rock stars resounded with music fans and resurrected careers.
But “Behind the Music” is a few years old now, and starting to run out of interesting stars to profile. It feels stale, and so does much of the network’s schedule.
“It’s in a rut,” Adgate said. “They might have gotten lost in the shuffle, since there’s a lot out there for people age 25 to 54 to watch. I think they lost their way in their branding effort.”
VH1 averaged 198,000 viewers for the first three months of the year, down markedly from its 252,000 average a year earlier, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Know who Zach Galifianakis is?
Not many people do. He’s the host of VH1’s new nightly talk show, “Late World With Zach,” that debuted March 4 – the night before “The Osbournes” premiere.
It’s the show VH1 is most counting on to refresh its schedule and create a sensation. So far it hasn’t happened; “Late World” averaged 129,000 viewers a night its first three weeks on the air.
Longtime VH1 chief executive John Sykes departed last month to take over Viacom’s radio subsidiary. MTV’s Judy McGrath was put in charge of VH1, and she’s looking for someone to run the network on a day-to-day basis.
New to her supervision of VH1, McGrath was reluctant to talk about the network.
“They’ve got an active development process going on there,” Toffler said, “and I’m sure they’ll come up with their own Osbournes.”
At VH1, they can only hope.