Early history (1985–1994)
Format and VJs (1985–89)
The first VH1 logo used from 1985 to 1988 in the USA; between 1995–2002 in Germany and 1993–1999 in the UK/Ireland. Designed by LPG/Pon, Dale Pon and George Lois.
The second VH1 logo used from 1988 to 1994. Designed by Scott Miller. During the Christmas season the "V" would be flipped upside down to resemble a Christmas tree.
VH1's aim was to focus on the lighter, softer side of popular music, including such musicians as Olivia Newton-John, Kenny Rogers, Carly Simon, Tina Turner, Elton John, Billy Joel, Eric Clapton, Sting, Donna Summer, Rod Stewart, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Anita Baker, Chicago and Fleetwood Mac, in hopes of appealing to people aged 18 to 35, and possibly older. Also frequently featured in the network's early years were "videos" for Motown and other 60s oldies consisting of newsreel and concert footage. It was introduced on January 1, 1985, with the video performance of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Marvin Gaye.
From the start, Video Hits One was branded as an urban version of its sister/parent channel. It played more jazz and R&B artists than MTV and had a higher rotation of urban-contemporary performers. Its early on-camera personalities were New York radio veterans Don Imus (then of WNBC), Frankie Crocker (then program director and DJ for WBLS), Scott Shannon (of WHTZ), Jon Bauman ("Bowzer" from Sha Na Na), Bobby Rivers, and Rita Coolidge.
Later VJs included Tim Byrd of WPIX-FM (the current day FM rebroadcast of WFAN), a station whose eclectic ballad-and-R&B oriented format mirrored that of VH-1, and Alison Steele ("The Nightbird" of WNEW-FM). Rosie O'Donnell later joined the outlet's veejay lineup. O'Donnell would also host a comedy show featuring various comedians each episode. As an added touch to make the network more like a televised radio station, the early years of the network featured jingles in their bumpers produced by JAM Creative Productions in Dallas, who had previously made jingles for radio stations worldwide.
The format left room for occasional ad-libs by the VJ, a godsend for emcees such as Imus and O'Donnell. In true Imus style, he used a 1985 segment of his VH-1 show to jokingly call smooth-jazz icon Sade Adu a "grape" for her oval-shaped head.
Typical of VH1's very early programming was New Visions, a series which featured videos and in-studio performances by smooth jazz and classical and new-age bands and performers, including Spyro Gyra, Andy Narell, Mark Isham, Philip Glass, and Yanni. At first many different musicians guest-hosted the program, but eventually musician/songwriter Ben Sidran became the permanent host.
New Age music videos continued to play on the channel into the 1990s. They would be seen on the Sunday morning two-hour music video block titled Sunday Brunch.
Early programming (1989–1994)
Once VH1 established itself a few years later, they catered to Top 40, adult contemporary, classic rock, and 1980s mainstream pop. For a time, even country music videos aired in a one-hour block during the afternoons. They started out using MTV's famous Kabel typeface font for their music video credit tags. It was later replaced in 1991 by a larger font, with the year the video was made added to the lower column that identified the label on which the album was released. In 1993, the name of the videos' director was included at the bottom of the credits.
During this time, they also had some non-music programming, such as a comedy hour hosted by Rosie O'Donnell with various amateur and veteran comedians, called Stand Up Spotlight, an in-depth look at current movies called Flix, and reports on good civilians and volunteers in the community, called Good News People.
Every week, the Top 21 Video Countdown usually had a different guest host. Occasionally, they had themed countdowns as well, such as Elvira hosting scary videos for Halloween in 1991.
Long blocks of music videos by a particular artist or band, theme, or years were also very popular in this era. One popular weekend program was called Video Rewind, in which blocks of 1980s videos from one particular year would play for an hour. There was also a short-lived hour-long program called By Request in which viewers could call a 1–900 hotline number to request their videos.
Also in 1991, a popular morning program was introduced called Hits News & Weather that ran from 7 AM to 9 AM ET. (It later expanded to 10 AM ET.) It consisted of music videos both past and present along with a 90-second update of the day's news & weather provided by All News Channel. The updates were typically shown twice an hour during the program. A box displaying the minutes past the hour was shown below the logo during the period. It was discontinued a week before the channel was re-branded in the Spring of 1994. During the week prior, classic music videos from forgotten artists/bands aired, titled Whatever Happened To...?
The channel's playlist was gradually expanding, and, by 1994, included contemporary musicians such as Ace of Base, Melissa Etheridge, Sheryl Crow, Lisa Loeb, Amy Grant, Seal, and other slightly heavier, or more alternative rock-influenced music than what it had originally played, although favorites such as Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, Rod Stewart, Cher, Elton John, Madonna, Phil Collins, Janet Jackson, and Céline Dion still continued to receive heavy play for several more years as well.
VH1 to One was a program in the Video Hits One days that was very similar to Behind The Music. It profiled artists such as Phil Colins, Michael Bolton and Paul McCartney. Plus other various artists of interest at the time that were playing the network's chosen style of music at the time and their music careers
VH1 Corvette Give-away Sweepstakes
In order to reach a wider and younger audience, VH1 announced in late 1989 that in 1990 they would be holding a contest where the grand prize was a collection of 36 Chevrolet Corvettes, one for every model year from its introduction year of 1953, to the then current model year of 1989 (there is no model for 1983), all going to a single grand winner. All cars were to be certified as roadworthy and in "good" to "excellent" condition. The collection at the time had an estimated worth of over US$1 million. Contestants entered by calling a 900 number and registering, at $2 per call. VH1 received over 4 million call-in entries. The winner was a man from Long Island, New York, who immediately sold the entire collection to artist Peter Max for $500,000. Max intended to use the cars for an art project, but it never got started and the entire collection was left in an underground parking lot in New York City for over 20 years, and deteriorated into poor condition.