Whitney Houston (right) and Mary J. Blige performing at the "VH1 Divas" concert in 1999.
VH1 will pay tribute to Whitney Houston for its next installment of "VH1 Divas," Billboard has learned. The network will tape the performance in Los Angeles in December, with Houston's longtime musical director Rickey Minor on board as executive producer. No artists have been confirmed for the tribute to Houston, a three-time performer on "Divas" in 1999, 2002 and 2003.
The tribute has already received the blessing of Houston's family and her label partners at Sony. "We all felt that if any show could pay tribute to Whitney's music, it would be 'Divas,'" VH1 president Tom Calderone tells Billboard. "December felt like enough time where it wouldn't be sad anymore, you'd want to celebrate her music."
Since debuting in 1998, "Divas" has become one of VH1's most-watched and best known franchises. Previous performers include Mariah Carey, Aretha Franklin, Celine Dion, Diana Ross, Cher, Tina Turner, Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Adele and Kelly Clarkson. The 2011 installment, "VH1 Divas Celebrates Soul," attracted 1.3 million total viewers and doubled the previous year's average rating, according to Nielsen Media Research.
Houston's "Divas" tribute will cap off a year of renewed investment in music programming for VH1, which has been talking up its 2012-13 "upfront" slate to advertisers and agencies since January in private presentations (the network did not hold a formal upfront event this year, unlike Viacom sibling MTV ). Calderone says music accounts for about 33% of the network's airtime, including re-energized franchises "Storytellers," "Unplugged" (a partnership with MTV), "Behind The Music" and "Pop Up Video" as well as newer programs like "The Greatest" and weekday talk show "Big Morning Buzz Live." VH1 is expected to debut a new take on a "Where Are They Now?"-style series later this summer.
Online, VH1 has amped up its music coverage via a new blog, Tuner , dedicated to premiering new VH1 music content as well as music news that has no correlation to on-air programming. Since debuting to 202,000 unique visitors in November, the blog saw significant gains in February (715,000) and March (318,000), according to Omniture. Calderone calls it a "concierge"-like service to VH1's music fans. "They go to maybe three or four shows a year, and if Coldplay is the band they want to see, who else might they like? Through Tuner and 'You Oughta Know,' now we can introduce them to bands like Gotye who's kind of like Peter Gabriel meets Coldplay and create a really cool, immersive experience with music."
Emerging-artist platform "You Oughta Know"  continues to spotlight new talent through on-air promos and featured synchs with VH1 programming. Current artists featured include Gotye, Scars on 45, Ed Sheeran, K'Naan, Graffiti 6 and Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings.
Music also factors into VH1 reality programs like "T.I. and Tiny," starring the "Bring 'Em Out" rapper, and "Couples Therapy," which co-stars DMX, as well as scripted drama "Single Ladies," produced by Queen Latifah and set to co-star T.I., Eve, Romeo and Latifah during its second season.
The renewed focus on music seems to have paired well with reality series like "Mob Wives" and "Basketball Wives" - the network was up 33% year-over-year among adults 18 to 49 in the first quarter of 2012, according to Nielsen Media Research, and just finished April with another 33% increase in the demo. Episodes of "Behind The Music" featuring Aaliyah, Brandy and Nas helped fuel the ratings growth, as did specials like "Whitney Houston: Death of a Diva" and "The 100 Greatest Women In Music."
As VH1 narrows its focus on an audience it calls "adultsters," or older millennials in the 26-to-30-year-old age group, expect more music-themed programming geared toward late-90s nostalgia hitting the network's prime-time and online platforms. "As fans want to learn more about the stories the artists have, and maybe they can't maintain a full hour of 'Behind The Music' or another one of our programs, you can imagine how Tuner would be a nice complement," Calderone says.