They've never made a music video, and until last year, they hadn't played together in more than 30 years. In July, though, members of the 1970s power-pop band the Raspberries were invited with open arms (and a few beers) to tape a performance and interview at one of cable television's hippest music channels, VH1 Classic. "We're just going to play until they throw us out," singer Eric Carmen said with a grin.
"We don't care about the drugs you did in the past; we don't care about who you slept with," says VH1 Classic general manager Eric Sherman, whose 5-year-old spinoff network (one of four such VH1 spawn; the others are VH1 Country, VH1 Soul and VH1 Uno) has become a cult success simply by playing music videos from the 1960s-early '90s that no one else will air anymore. "This is really, you come in and talk about your music."
According to Sherman, Classic boasts a 20,000-clip video library and receives 1,000 requests a day to fill 14 slots during its "All Request Hour"—the best indication of ratings that the network can offer. (Nielsen does not measure viewership for Classic, which added advertising only this year.) But the network has hitched itself firmly to the pop-nostalgia wagon by branding itself as the "has-been/once-was/ still-might-be" musician's new best buddy.
Viewers have become thrilled to see interviews with Deborah Harry, matched up with her old Blondie videos; Friday concerts by Lou Reed; in-studio performances by Billy Idol, and quirky specials like the Dee Snyder-hosted "Matzo & Metal: A Classic Passover." In the process, Classic has done more than blow dust off old Bow Wow Wow videos: The network already has managed to brand itself (New York Times reviewers have referred to an album's style as "VH1 Classic") and extend that brand to sponsorship of band tours and the new program "Decades Rock Live," which pairs classic artists onstage with newer bands.
But what Classic does best is simply exist as an alternative for those who would rather watch a video than "The Surreal Life" on the parent network. In that manner, VH1 keeps viewers localized.
"It's nice to see that high-end audience flip back and forth between VH1 (and Classic) when they need their pop-culture fix," VH1 general manager Tom Calderone says.
Adds Tim Brooks, co-author of "The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows": "Advertisers are interested in pure audiences. If you can keep the cost down—which (Classic) can do—and deliver a relatively rich audience in a specific demographic, then you've got a good business model."
Calderone agrees, calling Classic's 30- to 35-year-old demographic "the sweet spot" and adding: "The buzz alone on the channel, with very little marketing, makes us feel there's something there. We're going to put a lot of resources into it in 2006 and beyond."
How that translates remains to be seen, but Sherman expects recycling of VH1 and MTV shows to come into play. "Behind the Music," "Unplugged" and "Yo! MTV Raps," he notes, have not aired in years.
For now, VH1 Classic is working to ensure that its demo remains loyal, regardless of how the network evolves. Along those lines, Sherman says, Classic has a rule: No video gets played more than once a week.
"If you're a real music-video fan, we want you to keep tuning back in because you never know what you're going to get," he says. "That's really the core of our music-video programming strategy—that's the prize."