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.)
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.
Thompson’s creation was disdained by highbrow critics, including the Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. In response, Thompson articulated an elaborate manifesto defending his work—a defense, in retrospect, perhaps designed as much to assuage his own internal doubts as those of his external critics.
This May, Mr. Hirschorn used his Atlantic column to pen a similar manifesto. Under the heading “The Case for Reality TV: What the Snobs Don’t Understand,” he argued that the format allows for “the best elements of scripted TV and documentaries while eschewing the problems of each.”
Over lunch with NYTV, Mr. Hirschorn continued his campaign. Reality shows, he said, often dare to touch “third rail” issues, such as race and class, which conventional dramas and comedies tend to avoid. “A lot of scripted television now gets no ‘Updike points,’” he said.
His ability to toss off phrases like “Updike points” suggests that Mr. Hirschorn still aims to keep one foot—at least mentally—on the high ground. There’s the Atlantic column, for one thing. And he has kept up ties with his old New York journalism friends: At his apartment in Chelsea, where he lives with his wife–a book editor at St. Martin’s–and two children, Mr. Hirschorn hosts a poker game for media types. CBS’s Gil Schwartz, The New Yorker’s Tad Friend, New York Magazine’s Adam Platt, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and HarperCollins’ David Hirshey have all played.
So have any of Mr. Hirschorn’s friends in polite society ever needled him for being a prime mover behind, say, America’s Most Smartest Model—in which, according to VH1’s Web site, 14 “‘himbos’ and ‘bimbos’ face challenges that put both their overall intelligence and their beauty to the test”? According to Mr. Hirschorn: no. Perhaps, NYTV suggested, the Atlantic piece was Mr. Hirschorn’s defense not against the external Gorkies of this world, but rather against the part of his brain that used to dabble in Nabokov?
“I think I’m constantly self-doubting and self-interrogating on everything,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “I think that it’s a slightly shtetl mind-set, if you’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with what you’re doing and the vulnerabilities of it, nobody will figure it out before you do.”
But for all that anxiety, he’s having a blast. “I get to hang out with hilarious people and freaks and all sorts of bizarre, wonderful characters,” he said.
And friends confirm that he’s far from tortured. Mr. Andersen, his former mentor and business partner, said that he has never seen Mr. Hirschorn happier than in recent years. “I think he got over worrying about somehow being true to his master’s in comp lit and his Harvard degree,” said Mr. Andersen. “When you’re good at something, it makes you happy. He was never the kind of pointy-headed intellectual sort who looked down on entertaining crap.”
“It’s not like he decided, I don’t care about Nabokov anymore, it’s Flavor Flav for me,” Mr. Andersen went on. “He’s a man of many parts. Wallace Stevens sold insurance while he was writing great American poetry. There are histories of people doing these improbable things in different parts of their lives.”
Back at the upscale taco joint, Mr. Hirschorn ordered a cup of coffee. He said that one of the greatest influences in his life was a book by John Seabrook, called Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture.
“You can look at opera, which was the ultimate lowbrow activity of the 19th century,” he said. “And now you have to wear a fur to go see it. So I think these things are completely arbitrary.”
Some day, he said, he’d like to write a book or make a movie. Where might those projects fall, on the Flavor-Flav-to-Comp-Lit scale?. “Again, it’s sort of the no-brow thing,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “For me, all creative ideas sort of exist on one plane.”