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Fiore case adds urgency to VH1 soul-searching

The cable network was already reassessing its reliance on dating and relationship shows before a participant became the prime suspect in the model's slaying and apparently hanged himself.

August 27, 2009|Joe Flint

Can you have too much love?

That's what VH1 is starting to wonder. The Viacom-owned cable network, whose top five shows this year all have the word "love" in the title, is reassessing its heavy reliance on dating and relationship shows. Although the network says it was already plotting a new direction, that shift has taken on greater urgency since one of its reality show participants, Ryan Jenkins, apparently killed himself after becoming the lead suspect in the murder of his former wife Jasmine Fiore.

"This is not what I signed up for," said VH1 President Tom Calderone in his first interview since Jenkins' body was discovered Sunday in a British Columbia motel room. Calderone added that VH1 was "trying to get together" with production company 51 Minds Entertainment to figure out where the vetting system went wrong and "fix this problem and never ever let this happen again."

Although Jenkins had a record in Canada for assaulting a woman in Calgary, 51 Minds has said it was unaware of that when he was cast in the shows. Jenkins became the lead suspect in the murder of Fiore, whose mutilated body was found in a suitcase in a Buena Park trash bin. Jenkins fled to Canada and was found hanged in a hotel room.

VH1 has canceled both "Megan Wants a Millionaire" and "I Love Money 3," which Jenkins had appeared on. It is reevaluating its reliance on 51 Minds Entertainment, which produced both shows as well as several other reality hits on the network in recent years.

Calderone wants to bring some new producers into the mix. "We always want 51 Minds to be part of our arsenal and stable of creativity, but the only way VH1 will survive and be healthy is to have several different voices and production partners," he said.

Many of VH1's reality shows were sired by "The Surreal Life," a program in which B-list and C-list celebrities such as Tawny Kitaen and Verne Troyer would share living quarters. Out of that came "Flavor of Love," "Rock of Love" and "I Love Money." Those shows spawned "Charm School," "I Love New York" and "Daisy of Love."

Although Calderone wants to tweak the tone of VH1's reality shows, the risk is that he'll alienate VH1's audience if the shows lose some of their tawdry appeal. "I Love Money 2," for example, averaged 2.3 million viewers, while "Real Chance of Love" has been averaging 2.7 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings service. Overall, VH1's prime-time average audience this year is 760,000, up 26% from five years ago.

At the same time, a change in tone might make the shows easier to swallow on Madison Avenue. Many advertisers are wary of some of the shows on VH1 because they often feature drunken antics, fighting and lots of sexual innuendo.

Calderone points to "The T.O. Show," its new program with NFL star Terrell Owens, as indicative of the direction he'd like to take the network. The show follows Owens as he transitions from being a star on the Dallas Cowboys to trying to rehabilitate his image and career on the Buffalo Bills. Calderone said he wanted to bring a more redemptive feel to the network's reality programming.

"We don't want our viewers tuning in and feeling like it's the same network all the time," Calderone said. "That is not something we want to be famous for."

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joe.flint@latimes.com

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