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Gettin' a Kick out of Country Music

This story would not make a good country song. There is none of the heartbreak, there are no hard times, and it is lacking a “this town ain't big enough for the two of us” shootout. Although Viacom's Country Music Television (CMT) and Scripps Networks' newly acquired Great American Country (GAC) are definitely competitors—in Nashville, on Madison Avenue—the flourishing of the genre means they both win.

“Sure we're competing for some of the same audience,” says Ed Hardy, Scripps' senior VP, who oversees GAC, “but country music, with all its ebbs and flows always settles at a higher point, so there's always room for more than one network.”

CMT General Manager Brian Phillips concurs: “Country music has never been healthier.”

Indeed, country-music sales—sparked by the likes of Kenny Chesney, Gretchen Wilson and Tim McGraw—climbed 11.2% in 2004, while the airing of the Country Music Awards made the top 10, faring so well with young audiences (CBS' best teen demo in five years for any night) that ABC recently outspent CBS to win future rights to the program.

Country has shed its old hayseed image, thanks in part to the crossover appeal of stars like the Dixie Chicks. Country music plays to the same crowd that keeps NASCAR popular, and the post-9/11 patriotic fervor plays well as a country-music theme.

“Our clients are not looking for a rural target but for a certain programming environment, and these networks can provide it,” says Karen Coleman, broadcast investment director for StarLink.

“There are more country stars doing endorsements these days than musicians from any other genre,” says Hardy, also pointing to how New York—yes, that New York, the seeming antithesis of all things country music—wooed the CMA Awards to win the right to host the show. “I think those things show strong confidence in the appeal of country music.” (The New York radio market doesn't even have a country station.)

“I keep bumping into development people for other broadcast and cable networks in Nashville looking for specials and country-related programs,” Phillips says. “It's like a gold-rush town. Everybody wants a piece of the action.”

So two country networks is no problem. That said, the edge these days definitely belongs to Viacom's CMT. It got into the game first; Scripps just jumped in last fall, buying GAC from Jones Media Networks for $140 million.

GAC is on a remarkable growth spurt. Because of a deal with DirecTV, the network added more than 10 million households in 2004, bringing the tally to just 36.8 million. That is where CMT was when Viacom took over, but now the network has just passed the 77 million household mark.

“GAC is in its Avis phase right now where, as the clear-cut No. 2, they have to try much, much harder. CMT is way ahead right now,” says Shari Anne Brill, director of programming at ad-buying firm Carat USA. If you have less than 50% penetration like GAC, it's very tough to get the buyer's attention: “It depends on how they price themselves. You have to give very attractive deals, although Scripps can package it with their other channels,” Brill says, referring to Food Network, HGTV, DIY and Fine Living.

Not “MTV South”

And being the second one in is challenging these days when channel space is precious, Brill says, explaining that the network must convince operators that there is a country audience not being served by CMT. While digital obviously has more room, she points out, it isn't making big inroads into many of the more rural markets where country music is particularly strong.

And, she adds, while Scripps does a good job, when it comes to building a brand, “Viacom is the powerhouse. It's a really strong marketing machine, and they're making CMT more contemporary and more upscale.”

CMT is striving to differentiate itself from all other entertainment options on television, not just GAC, Phillips says: “I don't see us being pulled into any kind of face-off with Great American Country.” He emphasizes that, while CMT has all Viacom's strong resources, the network has its own independent identity. “We're not MTV South or VH1 with a twang.”

Actually, CMT is following the standard Viacom playbook fairly closely, but StarLink's Coleman points out that it should work as it has in the past with both audiences and media buyers. “CMT is becoming younger, and it has a more contemporary feel,” she says. “And it's stepping away from pure music into original properties.”

Upcoming series Trick My Truck is essentially MTV's Pimp My Ride with a country twang. Man Vs. Vegas (about a man who lost a lot of money there and seeks revenge), American Soldier (about a small-town National Guard brigade) and a two-hour special on girls trying to be Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders don't necessarily have anything to do with country music but fit well with the male 18-34 demo.

GAC Takes the Opry

And CMT has succeeded at broadening the focus of country, while staying true to the musical mission. For example, Crossroads pairs country artists like Hank Williams Jr. with musicians from other genres, such as Kid Rock. MuzikMafia TV goes behind the scenes on a national tour with stars like Gretchen Wilson (but also features blues musicians, a cowboy rapper and visual artists). CMT also featured a series, Home Blitz, teaming country stars with a Habitat for Humanity project. The upcoming Unsung Stories gets songwriters to create tunes from real stories ripped from the headlines.

“Country radio is quite conservative and more passive, and we want to redefine country music and help set the new direction,” says Phillips. “We are pushing this community to take creative chances. We are actually the single strongest presence.”

As part of CMT's new direction, however, it cut ties with the venerable but old-fashioned Grand Ole Opry, which GAC quickly snapped up. Hardy says grabbing Opry “definitely added millions and millions of subs. It was a big, big statement to the MSO community.”

Hardy says Scripps bought the network knowing it was “underdeveloped” and even in the wrong city. It was based in Denver, where Jones Media was headquartered. It moved to Nashville, Tenn.

Although GAC is different in subject matter from other Scripps networks, Hardy says, with its female 25-54 skew and wholesome atmosphere, it is a “natural fit” in terms of ad and affiliate sales. There are a few synergies. GAC ran a special on musician Buddy Jewell promoting a subsequent appearance on the company's Shop At Home network, where Jewell pushed a new album. The network is working on “cooking-with-country-stars” projects with the Food Network. “We want to build relationships with the artists and the labels and the viewers,” Hardy says.

While the network relies heavily on music videos (which is an inexpensive form of programming ideal for a smaller network) to build its true-to-the-music brand, it is also aggressively pursuing other options, says Sarah Trahern, VP of programming.

GAC will be partnering with the Academy of Country Music on projects and is already working with the Country Music Association at its festival, creating Celebrity Close-Up, an Inside the Actors Studio-like show for country, which the network hopes to expand upon. Like CMT, GAC sees this program as integral to revealing deeper truths than a video can convey. Says Trahern, “We want to directly connect the fans to the artists,” wherever in the U.S. country-music lovers are. That, as it turns out, is just about everywhere.