How 'Nashville' Hit Ratings High Notes Moving to CMT

To make Nashville a hit, Viacom enlisted nearly all of its networks to harmonize while promoting the series as it moved to CMT after four seasons on ABC.

Putting a show about country music on a network whose roots are in country music looks like an obvious fit, especially when that network is based in Nashville, where CMT execs have been known to line up for spots as extras.

Still, picking up a network-scale series was a huge bet for CMT, and Viacom needed to make sure it paid off. Launching the show became a company-wide priority, and it got a promotional boost from the Viacom Marketing Council and airtime on networks as diverse as BET, Logo and TeenNick.

The resulting promotional push helped produce record ratings for CMT when Nashville launched on Jan. 5. Those ratings have been rising and are setting the stage for CMT to launch another big scripted musical drama, Sun Records, based on the musical Million Dollar Quartet, which will debut Feb. 23.

"Viacom is a fans-first company—fans are the North Star for everything we do—and here comes CMT, and they're listening all the time to their fans, and loud and clear they heard Nashville is a show that needs to keep going," said Ross Martin, executive VP of marketing strategy and engagement for Viacom Media Networks and head of the marketing council. "What they did is they rescued an incredible show with an incredible, rabid fan base. And that is something a network does when it puts its fans first in the way that CMT did. Then the rest of this portfolio is ready to step up and support that in a meaningful way."

Viacom needs ratings wins. The company is emerging from the turmoil of 2016, when CEO Philippe Dauman was ousted amid lower ratings, revenues and profits and a potential combination with CBS. While CMT is not one of Viacom's largest networks, the company sees it as one with potential to growth.

According to research company iSpotTV, CMT promos for Nashville generated 576 million impressions in December and January, with 301,000 of those coming on CMT. That's a big number, but CMT wasn't working with the kind of marketing dollars the Big 4 networks have.

"While the show went from broadcast to cable, it didn't mean that the marketing budget went from broadcast to cable," said Anthony Barton, senior VP of consumer marketing and creative for CMT. "It was really important for us to track and make sure every bit of messaging hit the right person at the right time."

"This was not about how do we outspend anybody," added Martin. "This was about how do we work smarter, more strategically, more collaboratively and more innovatively than ever before to get behind the launch and sustained growth of Nashville."

The Viacom Marketing Council's previous priority was launching Season 20 of South Park on Comedy Central. The campaign helped produce a 27% increase in ratings, bringing the most viewers to Cartman, Kenny and the gang since 2006.

Viacom is particularly proud of its Audience Science unit, which searched its stable of networks to find viewers and potential viewers. It found fans and those who might be fans all over, including such unlikely places as BET and Logo.

"This is all about expanding beyond in target demos and this is all about understanding segments in a more dimensionalized way than ever before so we could nail the emotional drivers of behavior," Martin said.

"There are some really powerful things going on in this franchise. We have strong female characters, we have complex multidimensional story lines, we have music and we have Nashville itself, which becomes a character. And so when you have all these elements at play and you have superstars on the show, it gives us so many more dimensions to explore and play with and can plug into our system to be able to find persuadables wherever they might be," Martin said.

"Our job is to overcome cognitive bias, actually let the data and analytics teach us something before we begin to go create, and what that taught us was fans of Nashville and potential fans of Nashville were all over the media ecosystem, including places like BET and Logo, where others might not have thought to look," he said.

Martin said once the target audience was identified, the networks produced top-notch custom creative in the promos they produced.

BET for example linked Nashville to its miniseries about New Edition, which drew 4.2 million viewers in its debut this week.

One amusing spot shows how there's no difference between the shows in terms of plots involving backstage drama and shattered relationships. But it notes that when it comes to the way the performers dance, "OK, there is a difference."


MTV aired a promo that juxtaposed characters from its Teen Moms with those on Nashville, announcing that waiting for Nashville "is a mother."

On TeenNick, a young Nashville character was interviewed during a segment on Top 10.

Logo aired a marathon of southern-female oriented series Designing Women with promos for Nashville.

In December, VH1, MTV, TV Land and Nick at Nite on Dec. 15 all simulcast a "sneak peek" of Nashville. The Jan. 5 premiere episode was also simulcast on TV Land.

The Viacom networks also activated their social media handles to promote the show.

Viacom's content distribution team was able to get distributors to pitch in with a content offering of a trip to the Nashville set as top prize.

Viacom Labs activated its partnership with Giphy, which created 100 GIFs on Nashville's premiere night. Those GIFs got 52 million views.

The campaign appears to have worked for Nashville, produced by Lionsgate, ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment. The Jan. 5 premiere on CMT was the most-watched original telecast in the network's history and the most-watched original cable program that night with more than 3.1 million people watching on CMT and Nick at Nite. It drew 78% new viewers to CMT.

The campaign was designed to sustain Nashville throughout the season. Episode 2 drew 2.1 million viewers on CMT and nearly 3 million including those watching on Nick at Nite. For episode 3, ratings in the adults 18-49 demo were up 18%.

For all of CMT, ratings for originals are up 72% among adults 18-49 and 121% among women 18-49. For total day, ratings among adults 18-49 are up 26% and women 18-49 are up almost 40%, the network says.

Compared to Nashville's viewership on ABC last season, it is down 18% on CMT and Nick at Nite among adults 18-49.

When Nashville premiered on CMT, the network launched a refresh of its on-air environment for all of the new viewers it is attracting.

"We want to turn them into regular CMT viewers," said Barton.

Nashville also becomes an important promotional platform for the network, especially with all of the data it has about its audience.

"The promo time we've got every week during that hour is precious so we make sure that we introduce them to the right parts of CMT and keep them around," he said.

"We've got another scripted project coming in a couple of weeks, Sun Records, which we're seeing great buzz about because we we're telling them the next great music drama on CMT is Sun Records."

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.