MTV and VH1 headed in opposite directions

Monday, April 8, 2002

NEW YORK -- 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.

"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.

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."

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