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CMT’S Crowning Glory

1/26/2007 7:08 PM Eastern

What do you get when you sing a country song backwards?

You get your truck back, your girl back and your house back …

Country Music Television has taken the old joke to heart by deconstructing the popular form of storytelling through song and building a network around its connotations and cultural extensions.

Which is why tonight, you’ll see a bevy of hometown beauties in a battle of bikinis on CMT, as the network broadcasts the Miss America Pageant for the second time.

Purists may ask what such fare has to do with country music at all. Indeed, on the MySpace.com social-networking site, 31-year-old country-music fan Lee Walker from Little Rock, Ark., lashed out against the beautification of CMT on Jan. 21, in a screed titled “CMT Needs Some Brains”:

“First of all, why is the Miss America Pageant being shown on CMT these days?” he asked. “Why has CMT turned into a 'racing’ channel, showing stuff about race-car drivers? Also, why is CMT doing interviews with Hollywood actors about movies?

“That isn’t country music and it shouldn’t be shown on CMT! There are other channels for that stuff!”

CMT executives say they are hard pressed to come up with reasons why showing the Miss America pageant or reruns of The Dukes of Hazzard aren’t related to their core audience of primarily middle-American families — 38 million of whom live in the mid- and Southeastern sections of the country.

“Country-music fans don’t live in isolation,” said CMT general manager Brian Philips, who has led the network on a rapid expansion away from country hat-act videos toward “lifestyle” TV programs that appeal to a broad viewer demographic.

Snapshot: CMT
Country Music Television, owned by Viacom’s MTV Networks
CHIEF EXECUTIVE: Brian Philips, EVP and General Manager
FOUNDED: 1983
BASED IN: Nashville, Tenn.
HOUSEHOLDS REACHED: 83 million
KNOWN FOR: Slick country-music shows
CHALLENGES: Expand audience, without losing hardcore country-music fans

MORE WOMEN VIEWERS

Surprisingly, that group is more Momma than Bubba. The median CMT viewer is 40 years old and 56% of the watchers are female, according to the network. Forty-one percent are married with children and 36% have more than one child.

So Miss America is a double dip for CMT: Male viewers are happy to crack open a beer and watch pretty girls, while the ladies enjoy the pageant process. “The CMT audience takes great pride in their home and their states,” said Philips.

And anyway, the strategy works. Miss America was a big hit for CMT on Jan. 21, 2006, when it pulled in a network record average of 3.1 million viewers, or 2.6% of households. “We’re always looking for a chance to make the tent bigger,” Philips said.

So far, so good. CMT currently has 83.2 million subscribers. Its viewership has more than doubled since Viacom and CBS Corp. merged in 2000 and CMT became part of the MTV Networks family. In 2001, for instance, 198,000 Americans watched the channel live during primetime, or within seven days on a recording device. Last year, that number had swelled to 377,000, according to Nielsen MarketBreaks data.

The network’s advertising revenue growth has been equally impressive. CMT’s top line zoomed 87% from $77 million in 2001 to $144 million in 2005, according to estimates from TNS Media Intelligence.

The good performance came despite some tough years for country-music album sales in the early part of this decade. In 2006, country CD sales remained flat at 75 million copies — actually good news — as the rest of the music industry’s album sales slumped 5%.

Snapshot: GAC
Great American Country, owned by Scripps Networks
CHIEF EXECUTIVE: Ed Hardy
FOUNDED: 1994
BASED IN: Nashville, TN
HOUSEHOLDS REACHED: 46 million
KNOWN FOR: Die-hard country music audience
CHALLENGES: Growing while offering primarily music video format

APPOINTMENT AUDIENCE

Any viewer flipping to CMT these days looking for endless, MTV-style loops of music videos will be disappointed. “Running pure music videos end to end is a 20-year-old idea, and a bit of the novelty has worn off,” says Philips.

Instead, the network is dropping the slick shorts in favor of larger thematic shows, such as Giants, where big-name acts such as Kelly Clarkson, Faith Hill and Dolly Parton pay musical tribute to such long-standing superstars as Reba McIntyre.

Another hit for the network is the show Crossroads, in which a popular country star is paired with an artist from another corner of the musical universe to share stories and play together.

Recent team-ups include the bluegrass master Ricky Skaggs with pianist Bruce Hornsby; and country crooner Kenny Rogers with soul/pop singer Lionel Richie. As well, CMT Comedy Stage, a new offering, stretches into the humor circuit and presents-up-and coming talent.

Straying even further from performance-based music are such CMT shows as Trick My Truck, where a good old boy gets his ride decked out and upgraded by top mechanics; and, Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team, in which CMT cameras follow the entire audition process for the perky, pulchritudinous pom-pom girls.

Advertisers appear more than willing to come along for the ride. In the last year, marquee companies such as Ford, Verizon, Campbell’s Soup, AT&T and Budweiser advertised on a broad range of CMT programming, including several feature films and the CMT Music Awards.

The classic country-music themes of lost love, love and trucks are fertile ground for new programming, said Bob Kusbit, who just joined CMT as its new chief of program development.

Kusbit has a storied track record at Viacom flagship MTV, creating hit shows such as the teenager self-improvement series Made and Spring Break. He runs a show incubator called One Louder Productions.

“The country audience thinks about all these things,” Kusbit said. He’s already busy hatching new show ideas based on images and ideas from country videos.

“We’re going to pull some information out and have some fun with it,” he said. Starting next month, the network will air a six-part series called Video Joint, digging into the music-video culture. According to CMT, the segments will delve into country fashion, dancing and trivia tied to top-rated videos.

Kusbit’s arrival comes as no surprise to TV analyst Joel Raab of Raab Associates, who tracks CMT from Langhorne, Pa. Viacom has aggressively expanded all its cable properties beyond music videos, including MTV, VH1 and Spike TV. The latter was originally called The Nashville Network but was overhauled into a network for the male, generation-Y video-gamer set — much to the dismay of many country-music enthusiasts.

In moving away from music videos, CMT follows in the footsteps of MTV, which first popularized the programming at the start of the 1980s.

“MTV discovered 25 years ago that you can’t get ratings showing just music videos,” said Raab.

The changeover under Viacom started about three years ago and is now in full swing at CMT.

“They’re trying to stay within the [country] psychographic” and appeal to the 'appointment viewer’ — folks who make sure they’re sitting in front of the TV at 8:30 p.m. to watch their favorite show,” said one industry analyst who works for several music networks. “The goal is to create unique content that can’t be duplicated.”

Kusbit is well aware of the challenge. What works, he said, is “TV that offers something the audience is passionate about.”

Some CMT viewers, like Lee of Little Rock, say they are moving over to Great American Country, CMT’s most direct competitor, instead. GAC’s viewership has risen from 42,000 in primetime in 2001 to 89,000 last year, according to Nielsen.

But CMT’s strategy doesn’t bother all country music fans. “All the cable music networks have been branching out with programming, so why not CMT?” said Al Higgins of Rhinelander, Wisc., who runs a blog called Today’s Country Music. “Look at VH1 and MTV. Many of their shows don’t even involve music, but they do cater to the demographics of their audience.”

STRETCHING TOO FAR

Despite CMT’s successes, analysts warn that pushing its viewers outside their comfort zone could be hazardous. “There’s a danger of getting too far away from country music,” said Raab.

“If you run too much [programming like] that it’s like crack — it gets you a high rating, but it harms your brand,” he said.

MTV found that out the hard way with a reality series called American Soldier. The eight episodes tracked a group of young men as they readied for combat in Iraq. It bombed.

“It was just too close to home for too many people,” says Phillips, who added: “We loved it; it was heart-wrenching.”

CMT viewers don’t like things quite that heavy, but they evidently do like movies with a lighter story line and country stars in lead roles. The network recently worked with Paramount Home Entertainment to produce Broken Bridges, starring heartthrob Toby Keith, actress Kelly Preston and up-and-coming singer Lindsey Haun. Willie Nelson even had a cameo. The movie attracted a solid 1.4 million viewers and the DVD sold 292,000 copies in its first week.

CMT’s genre-stretching is welcomed by at least one of its competitors. About 30% of the Gospel Music Channel’s material comes from country artists and CEO Charlie Humbard is glad to see CMT moving away from the traditional music-video format.

“From our standpoint, we feel it’s great,” Humbard said. As CMT chases into the mainstream audience, more “rednecky” traditional country-music lovers are being left for Gospel, he added.

Watching You
Rodney Atkins' current chart-topping country song could apply to Country Music Television and Great American Country. Both networks are gaining viewers.
Primetime Viewership* 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006
CMT 198,000 280,000 345,000 315,000 324,000 377,000
GAC 42,000 47,000 43,000 51,000 70,000 89,000
* Live viewers plus those who watched shows within seven days
SOURCE: Nielsen MarketBreaks

BOON FOR GAC

Also standing to gain is Great American Country.

But the Scripps Networks-owned outlet is still a distant second. GAC’s programming only reaches 46 million households and its viewership is one-fourth to one-third of CMT’s.

GAC executives declined to be interviewed for this story. But the 13-year-old network appears to be doing well.

In 2005, GAC posted revenues of $15.5 million and its nine-month run-rate for 2006 stands at $14.6 million, according to Scripps, which finalized the $140 million purchase of the service from Jones Media Networks Ltd. in November 2004. It’s running $407,000 in the black after direct expenses, said Scripps officials. The network’s subscriber base also jumped 17% in the last year.

GAC clearly prefers to stay closer to the music than its rival. It broadcasts the venerable Grand Old Opry live every Saturday evening and offers such music video-based programs as The Collection, The Edge of Country and the Top 20 Country Countdown.

GAC gets kudos for standing with the hardened country music fans, but if it wants bigger growth, the music video format may have to be reinvented. “GAC will have to play that card too,” said Raab.

There are signs that’s already happening. Earlier this month, GAC launched a new show called The Year, hosted by singer Mark Wills. It offers a blast-from-the-past formula for viewers who like to focus on specific years in music. Also new is Fast Track February, which will showcase concerts and interviews with newcomers Keith Anderson, Julie Roberts and Trent Tomlinson.

“GAC is the network where viewers can see the stars of tomorrow on television today,” senior vice president of programming Sarah Trahern said.

For their part, CMT officials aren’t checking their rear-view mirror for a sneak GAC attack. But Philips and Kusbit are keenly aware of the roots nature of country music and their audience’s fierce attachment to it. Neither wants to push lifestyle fare beyond the logical limits.

“You’ll see a very defined country filter to everything we do,” Philips said.

So will the Miss America contestants wear cowboy hats? Probably not, but expect some country star surprises during the show, CMT officials said.

September