One day in 2002, Michael Hirschorn of VH1 was thumbing through an obscure music magazine when he happened upon an article about a BBC TV show. At the time, Mr. Hirschorn was on a frantic search for creative new programming ideas that might give the struggling cable channel a shot in the arm, and something about the British show’s concept—in which commentators mocked music and fashion trends from the 80’s—appealed to him.
Mr. Hirschorn had a hunch that while baby boomers liked their nostalgia straight up, younger audiences preferred to revisit their cultural pasts under the cover of irony and humor. Getting wise-cracking comedians and actors to make fun of the movies, TV shows and music videos of their youth, he figured, could be a way to allow viewers to reengage with those long-forgotten products, and revel in a shared cultural heritage.
He snapped up the concept on the cheap, and quickly cranked out a pilot. Thus was born I Love the ’80s, which debuted in December 2002—and went on to become the new VH1’s signature hit. The premiers of the first 10 episodes averaged one million viewers, a 175 percent improvement on the time slot’s average at the time, according to VH1. The show also poured the foundation for the channel’s emerging sensibility—sassy, retro and unapologetically pop-obsessed.
Mr. Hirschorn was sitting across from NYTV at an haute–taco restaurant on 50th Street as he told this story on a recent afternoon. It was drizzling outside, and Mr. Hirschorn, who had neglected to bring an umbrella, was glistening. He ran his hand through his wet brown hair and went on explaining how, in the years since that initial triumph, he has used that same highbrow editorial sensibility to help pioneer for VH1 a new genre of lowbrow reality programming.
Mr. Hirschorn’s key insight was, in a sense, conceptual. The first wave of reality TV tended to create drama by putting broadly recognizable people into contrived contests—surviving on an island, or competing for the heart of a handsome suitor, for instance. VH1 shows, by contrast—along with the plethora of imitators they’ve spawned—are more likely to play on viewers’ fascination with both the glamour and depravity of stardom. The channel has had hits with shows like The Surreal Life, in which wizened and bloated celebrities, “forced” to share a house in the Hollywood Hills, gleefully back-stab for the camera; Rock of Love, in which 20 lusty ladies vie for the heart of former Poison frontman Bret Michaels; and Celebrity Fit Club, in which portly former stars compete to drop pounds and revive their sagging careers.
Mr. Hirschorn declined to say how much he makes, but according to a source, he earns over $1 million in total compensation. Still, by all accounts, he’s earned every penny. “His ability to tap the B-list nation for fresh material is breathtaking,” said New York Times media columnist David Carr, who once worked for Mr. Hirschorn at the short-lived journalism Web site Inside.com. “He did not invent the high-low thing, but I think he is the unacknowledged master of it.”
That’s an unlikely identity for Mr. Hirschorn, who once looked destined to make an impact in a more literary sphere. Until joining VH1 six years ago, he had spent most of his career as a writer and editor of high-end magazine journalism, and he still writes a regular column on culture for The Atlantic Monthly. So how did Mr. Hirschorn—who earned a master’s degree in comparative literature from Columbia University, producing a thesis that analyzed a linguistic riddle in Nabokov’s Pale Fire—get from studying the language of Vladimir Nabokov to subtitling the language of Flavor Flav?
“I haven’t resolved that conflict—if I’d like to be a populist, or highbrow,” said Mr. Hirschorn over lunch, by way of explanation. “That’s why I do both.”
To better understand the source of those competing impulses, it helps to go back a ways. Mr. Hirschorn grew up on East 51st Street in Manhattan. His mother was a journalist who wrote for The Economist and edited the op-ed page for the Journal of Commerce. His father owned a business specializing in noise control engineering.
“We were a European immigrant, super-highbrow family, collecting autographs from Vladimir Horowitz,” he went on. “I went to piano recitals at Carnegie Hall. We bought a TV to watch the moon launch. I was only allowed to watch Masterpiece Theatre and Jacques Cousteau.”
Pop culture was the forbidden fruit. Decades after the fact, Mr. Hirschorn still gets excited recalling his pilgrimage to see the members of the Beastie Boys, when they were in The Young and the Useless in the early 80’s. “Hip-hop, when I was a teenager, was a way of being cool.” (When asked what he felt most proud of at VH1, Mr. Hirschorn named, among other shows, Ego Trip’s The (White) Rapper Show—a reality series, in which 12 aspiring Caucasian rappers, lived in a tenement in the South Bronx and competed for street cred, airtime and $100,000.)
After grade school and high school at Collegiate on the Upper West Side, Mr. Hirschorn went to Harvard, where he threw himself into the Crimson. But his senior year, he was beaten out for president of the paper by Jeff Zucker, who now runs NBC Universal. (Years later, Mr. Hirschorn would get his revenge, slamming his old rival in a piece in Esquire.)