Then, while doing his masters at Columbia, Mr. Hirschorn began writing freelance magazine articles, on culture and business. “The people who were in academia were like, oh, my God, you wrote for The New Republic,” recalled Mr. Hirschorn. “So you must have had a hundred readers rather than one.”
Mr. Hirschorn enjoyed playing to a broader audience. Soon, he had thrown himself into the world of glossy magazines. As it turned out, the son of a noise reducer had a knack for making noise. Over the next decade, he climbed fast, serving as features editor at Esquire—where a regular column he wrote, called “Trash Culture,” offered a hint as to where his interests were heading—then as executive editor at New York, and as editor in chief of Spin.
In 1999, Mr. Hirschorn teamed up with Kurt Andersen, the co-founder of Spy, to launch Inside.com—which they billed as a “must read online site for members of the cultural elite.” Though the site generated buzz among that elite, it never became profitable. The site’s failure, said Mr. Hirschorn, “was incredibly painful.”
Still, he kept looking for the next big thing. In the summer of 2001, Mr. Hirschorn parlayed his reputation as a know-it-all music geek into a gig at VH1. At 37, it was his first job in television. “I had watched maybe 10 minutes of VH1 before that,” he said. “But it was a lot more money than I had been earning.”
At first, Mr. Hirschorn struggled. The idea was that he would produce news segments about the music business. But he knew nothing about television development, and his ideas went nowhere. In the summer of 2002, Viacom brought in MTV wunderkind Brian Graden to shake up the stagnant channel. Mr. Hirschorn prepared to be fired.
Instead, Mr. Graden coached him on the basics of TV development and sent him searching for aberrant material. Anything that would attract eyeballs. “That first year was essentially pure, creative chaos,” recalled Mr. Hirschorn. “It was the wallpaper strategy. We’ll slap everything up there and figure it out.”
That was how he stumbled upon the idea for I Love the ’80s. Meanwhile, Mr. Graden had scooped up The Surreal Life, which had been running on the WB. During the third season, which aired on VH1 in 2004, former Public Enemy rapper Flavor Flav struck up a disaster of a romance with Danish D-List actress—and former Mrs. Sly Stallone—Brigitte Nielsen. Mr. Hirschorn and his colleagues knew a mesmerizing train wreck when they saw one. They green-lighted a spinoff series called Strange Love chronicling the unlikely affair.
There was more, of course. When Flavor Flav and Ms. Nielsen broke up, Mr. Hirschorn went with another spinoff from the prolific producer Mark Cronin, called Flavor of Love, in which a cast of ragtag women competed for Flavor Flav’s affection. Last October, the 90-minute season finale of Flavor of Love 2 attracted 7.5 million total viewers, a VH1 record, and among black adults 18 to 49 earned an 18 rating and a whopping 34 share.
And on Oct. 15, VH1’s new block of Monday night programming attracted more 18-to-49-year-old viewers than any nonsports-related programming that night. The Salt-N-Pepa Show, which chronicles the comeback of the eponymous 80’s female rap group, drew 2.2 million total viewers and a 1.3 rating in the 18-to-49 demo.
VH1 has ridden its unapologetic embrace of the lowbrow to become one of the most recognizable brands in a crowded cable universe, and has enjoyed 21 straight quarters of ratings growth. According to estimates from industry analysts at SNL Kagan, VH1’s year-end advertizing subscriptions jumped this year from 74.2 to 93.7 million, and ad revenue was also way up.
And so, with his success in television more or less secured, Mr. Hirschorn is left to grapple with the same internal quandary that has bedeviled others who have made a similar transition from highbrow aesthete to purveyor of mass-market pleasures.
Call it the Frederic Thompson Syndrome.
To wit: In 1904, a frustrated design student named Frederic Thompson dropped out of architecture school, moved to New York, and became the first architect to work wonders on Coney Island. As chronicled in Rem Koolhaas’ Delirious New York, Mr. Thompson used a patch of the island, called Luna Park, to pioneer a freakish form of what might be called extreme architecture, which ranged freely over various styles and traditions, and included over a thousand “towers, minarets, and domes.” The crowds loved it.