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In the Groove

Cable networks and streaming services are turning up the volume on music, cueing up scripted shows designed to hit the right notes with audiences.

From Million Dollar Quartet, CMT’s historical look at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, to Roadies, Showtime’s series about a concert setup crew, to BET’s biographical miniseries New Edition Story, cable networks are mixing pop music with drama in an effort to strike a chord with a broader young audience.

“Music is the great unifier,” Cherie Saunders, TV editor for black entertainment-news website, said. “If you can tap into a fan base and just feed them a constant diet of that genre of music through whatever drama vehicle you’re presenting, I think that combination can generate a hit series.”

The music component also allows programmers to extend the marketing mix for a series beyond television, into digital album and single sales for original music tied to the show — another way to reach younger viewers.

“Music is an element that brings in younger audiences to drama that might otherwise skew typically older,” TV One president Brad Siegel said. “It’s a way to bring 18-34 and 18-49 viewers into drama.”

Scripted series that play off popular music trends aren’t new to television. Sitcoms like The Monkees (1966-68) and The Partridge Family (1970- 74) had a long shelf life in reruns. More recently, Fox’s Glee and ABC’s recently canceled Nashville took music-themed TV into new terrain.

And on the cable side, music-themed biopics like last year’s Whitney, Lifetime’s take on the life of pop diva Whitney Houston, and HBO’s Bessie, which starred Queen Latifah as blues icon Bessie Smith, have generated big ratings and garnered critical acclaim.

But it’s the success of Fox’s hip-hop themed Empire that’s helped the genre hit a high note with viewers. Music serves as a strong backup player to the dramatic series’ soap opera-like storyline.

Empire, which depicts the triumphs and struggles of a family-run music enterprise, was the top freshman show on both broadcast and cable during the 2015-16 television season and remained among the most-watched shows by adults 18-49 during its sophomore campaign.

“The music is important, but I think the other elements of storytelling, production value and amazing characters are just as big a contributor to the show’s success as having music and music performers,” Siegel said of Empire, for which TV One in April secured rare in-season distribution rights.

Last month, the network scored the biggest Memorial Day weekend ratings in its history by running an Empire marathon.

While just about everyone has an emotional relationship with music, not everyone likes the same types of music, Showtime president and CEO David Nevins said.

Ultimately, music serves as a way to draw viewers to the drama, with the characters and the storyline providing the glue that keeps them coming back each week, said Nevins, whose Showtime will launch Roadies on June 26.

Produced by Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous) and J.J. Abrams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens), Roadies follows the backstage workers who build and break down the stage for a touring rock band.


Other distributors have been successful in melding music themes with strong storylines. Amazon scored a hit with its sophomore dramedy series Mozart in the Jungle. The classical music-based series won two 2016 Golden Globe awards for best comedy series and best actor in a comedy or musical series for star Gael Garcia Bernal.

FX’s Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll, which follows Denis Leary (also a producer) as an aging rock star trying to resurrect his career with the help of his musically inclined estranged daughter, returns for a second season in July, while HBO’s 1970s rock music-themed series Vinyl — despite so-so reviews and less than stellar audience numbers — returns for a second season in 2017.

Netflix will also revisit the 1970s in The Get Down, a series that will focus on the rise of hiphop music late in that decade.

CMT is hoping viewers will make hits of two music-based scripted series: Million Dollar Quartet and Still the King, which stars countrymusic veteran Billy Ray Cyrus as a one-hit-wonder-turned-Elvis impersonator who hits rock bottom before discovering he has a 15-year-old daughter.

CMT’s first scripted-series foray would naturally be rooted in music, given the channel’s country-music pedigree, CMT executive vice president of development Jayson Dinsmore said. But both shows will offer music that extends beyond the traditional Nashville sound, he said.“We didn’t just put the expected songs in Still the King — you’ll hear everything from the Rolling Stones to Modest Mouse, in addition to current country artists,” he said.

With Million Dollar Quartet, the network will look to extend the show’s brand to the Billboard charts by selling the show’s performances in music stores and on digital platforms, Dinsmore said.

All of the performances from Million Dollar Quartet will be available for purchase on iTunes after each episode airs. CMT is exploring the idea of a music tour involving the series’ stars once filming of the first season has ended.

Indeed, Saunders said Empire and Nashville effectively incorporated popular music both as part of the storyline as well as promotional tool to help expose the series to new audiences by selling songs from the series as part of digital single downloads and full albums.

Empire’s season-one soundtrack, released in March 2015, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart — the first TV soundtrack to launch at the top of the charts since Glee in 2010. By the time Empire launched its second season last October, the album had sold more than 431,000 copies and had been streamed online, either in part or in full, more than 122 million times, according to Nielsen.


“We have to look at all kinds of different benchmarks in order to determine what is a successful television series today, and a big part of that is fan engagement,” Dinsmore said. “The more we can offer up experiential things like a tour, the more goodwill we have around the channel.”

BET will also look to generate music sales from New Edition Story, the documentary miniseries based on the 1980s R&B boy band that spawned the careers of Bobby Brown and Bell Biv DeVoe.

BET president of programming Stephen Hill said the industry is just now striking up the band for even more music-based shows to serenade viewers. “There are some stories that can be told,” he said, adding that the network is exploring several music-based series of its own, although he would not disclose specifics.

Added’s Saunders: “As long as the ratings continue to soar for these types of shows you’ll see more of them. It won’t be too long before we get a polka show or a bluegrass series.”

R. Thomas Umstead serves as senior content producer, programming for Multichannel News, Broadcasting + Cable and Next TV. During his more than 30-year career as a print and online journalist, Umstead has written articles on a variety of subjects ranging from TV technology, marketing and sports production to content distribution and development. He has provided expert commentary on television issues and trends for such TV, print, radio and streaming outlets as Fox News, CNBC, the Today show, USA Today, The New York Times and National Public Radio. Umstead has also filmed, produced and edited more than 100 original video interviews, profiles and news reports featuring key cable television executives as well as entertainers and celebrity personalities.