13 second video jingle VH-1 from fredseibert on Vimeo.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. This was the network that had my clearest fingerprints all over it, and ultimately became one of the list of reasons I had for leaving the business. In any event, the era of the early 90s remains a personal favorite of mine. But, of course, I’m biased (or maybe it’s just my age).
No one knew what to do with VH-1.
“Video Hits One” didn’t work.
“The Other Music Television” didn’t work.
And “Baby Boomers Deserve Their Own Channel” didn’t work.
Time for some Fred/Alan rebranding.
Tom Freston and I were having a rare sit down outside the office one day in late 1990 lamenting what had crashed and burned at VH-1. Launched as a “fighting brand” to Ted Turner in 1985, the channel had limped along never quite finding it’s way. Don’t know what came over me —maybe it was the continuing strength of our hit invention at Nick-at-Nite— but I blurted out that the “solution” to VH-1 was oldies.
“Music video is just about 10 years old, so the oldest generation of video fans is already between 35 and 45 years old, VH-1’s target. These people have no interest in the newest hair bands, they want to hear the music they already liked and fit it into a soundtrack of their lives. And this generation were teenagers smack dab towards the end of fast talking DJs and zippity jingles. Let’s remix the golden age of Top 40 radio and MTV and turn the channel into ‘VH-1! The Greatest Hits!! of Music Video!!!'”
I’m not sure what came over Tom either, because he enthusiastically agreed and immediately cleared the way with management. We brought in a leading programming consultant, Fred Jacobs, who enthusiastically took to the idea and brought a lot of great ideas. We walked the entire staff through our point of view, and the reasoning behind it. As usual with a big organization, some people embraced the idea fully, and others were left grumbling (it wasn’t exactly the hippest solution, and MTV Networks was screaming with hipsters).
Creatively we went right to work, because there was a lot to do, and not much of a budget to do it with (remember, it’s not like the channel was in the greatest shape). The format was going to be like “hit radio”, with lots of announcer breaks (voice over only, no more VJs that no one liked), a half dozen “promise” tags (the station slogans), and, for me at least, the most fun was going to be using authentic Top 40 style radio jingles (more later). I enlisted Rowe Jones (we’d worked together on TV Heaven) to do an ungodly amount of daily work for us from his Florida studio; he would write, announce, and produce all the daily copy, and he became the voice of the network.
The jingles were going to be an interesting puzzle. No one on television had taken the 30 year, iconic sounds of hit radio and translated them, and while I thought the sound would be a slam dunk, the visuals were another matter entirely. At Fred/Alan we always thought the most provocative “look” of a network was actually driven through the aural passages, that television was, in fact, as much as an audio medium as visual. I went right the best source in the world, Jonathan and Mary Wolfert’s JAM Creative Productions in Dallas, Texas. Jon was crazy for the idea, and once we settled a few union singer residual issues, he dove right in, taking our dozen tags (from “the greatest hits!! of music video!!!" to "a-nother ow-er! of video pow-er!!!”) and constructing a classic sound with a totally 90s feel.
The video was trickier because what was a “video jingle” anyway? No one had done it before. Perceptual distinction was called for, certainly, but what did that mean? We went to two innovators for the answers. VMA winner Alex Weil at Charlex and Academy Award winner Zbigniew Rybczynski of Zbigvision. And over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday of 1990/91 they bum rushed the execution of flawless packaging for this sort of new channel.
Basically, the gig was like this: we had a number of different jingles, from three second “stingers” to 10+ second full chorus pieces. Both directors would use the exact same tracks, but lay over hundreds of video variations. There wasn’t exactly a budget for all that, but Alex and Zbig would develop a certain number foreground action with singers, dancers, and actors, and green screen as many backgrounds as could be afforded.
Fred/Alan IDs: VH-1 jingles by Charlex from fredseibert on Vimeo.
Charlex founders Charlie Levi and Alex Weil burst onto the scene with their 1984 sweep of the first VMAs (with Jeff Stein and my wife-to-be-10-years-later) for The Cars' “You Might Think.” High profile assignments for SNL and Fred/Alan soon followed. We were all about the same age with parallel backgrounds and cultural influences (I knew we were in exactly the right place at our first meeting when Charlie made a crack about Fred Flintstone; very rare in the advertising world that someone would go so lowbrow). Fred/Alan actually became the Charlex ad agency in the late 80s. Nickelodeon, Myers’s Rum, and HA! saw some pretty good Fred/Alan-Charlex collabs, and we all had a great time doing it.
Alex Weil was the consummate confederate for VH-1. He had an awesome pop sensibility, but sometimes he wanted to think he was more sophisticated than that. A perfect conflict. And the clash was superbly matched to these jingles. Alex took to them in a heartbeat, reveling in the casting process and the dozens of different mix & match backgrounds he was going to put together with the logos.
My favorite accidental casting came about when Alan saw 1990s Miss Soviet Union and her runner up, beautiful blondes both, on David Letterman’s Late Night and got them over to Charlex the next day (the spot are in the package above). I’m sure they (or their handlers) had absolutely no idea what was going on or what they were lip syncing, but they were VH-1 stars for the next three years.
Fred/Alan IDs: VH-1 jingles by Zbigvision from fredseibert on Vimeo.
Filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczynski was a surprise 1983 Oscar winner for his animated short “Tango and immediately picked shorts assignments for Lorne Michaels’ “The New Show" (where we were introduced by Colossal Pictures’ Lidia Przyluska) and then a whole passel of innovative conceptual music videos and films. Always pushing envelopes with technical R&D, by 1990 Zbig was one of the first directors dedicated to video composing using (then) rare HD video cameras from Sony.
Watching Zbig plan a shoot was a fascinating and often confusing experience. He didn’t make conventional storyboards, preferring to map out the mathematical components of his vision on graph paper. The VH-1 one project was no different. Polish born, he didn’t have any of the nostalgic feelings for the Top 40 style radio jingles that Alex, Alan, or I had; I’ve no idea if he even knew what they were. So, his vision was starker and weirder, not one bit pop (at least not what I was familiar with; people in potato sacks or pajama onsies?). But, the way we figured it, we had plenty of pop with Charlex, and the pieces were just a few seconds each. No one could really have enough time to hate them.
By the time he was done, I found Zbig’s pieces mesmerizing.
Alas, “The Greatest Hits!! of Music Video!!!” was destined to be another in the long line of losing formats for VH-1. Our ratings improved dramatically for a little while (as all new VH-1 formats seemed to do) but really just sputtered along for most of it’s time on the air. I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t work, except that maybe our timing was off by maybe 15 years or so (music videos are the most popular film form on YouTube, the world most popular video player by a factor of 10), and it didn’t help that management was only going along because they’d been order to do so. Within a year they were continually undermining it, putting in their hipster touches all over the place. So, ultimately, it was, at best, an idea out of time, and at worst, just plain wrong. John Sykes came into the channel in 1994, hated (hated) the Greatest Hits, and instituted his “Music First” format. It crapped out too.
December 26, 1990 & January 4, 1991
Jingles produced by JAM Creative Productions, Dallas, Texas
Videos produced & directed by Alex Weil @ Charlex, NYC, and Zbigniew Rybczynski of Zbigvision, Hoboken, NJ
VH-1 logo: Scott Miller & Myles Tanaka
Executive Producers: Alan Goodman & Fred Seibert, Fred/Alan, Inc., New York
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