Nashville, the city, and Nashville, the country music industry, are expecting big things from Nashville, the new fall drama from ABC. The serialized drama, which stars Connie Britton as an country singer juggling her home life and struggling to remain a relevant artist, might not have made it on the air a few years ago.
But just as country music is moving toward the mainstream, the mainstream is gravitating toward country music - and TV execs, hungry for audiences, are eager to tap into country’s loyal fan base. “We know from our proprietary research that about 96 million Americans qualify as country music fans, based on their listening habits and purchase behavior,” says Country Music Association marketing director Cory Chapman. “That leads to a big opportunity for a network to go after that audience.”
Country music last experienced a surge in mainstream popularity in the early 1980s, thanks to the movie Urban Cowboy. But this time around, it’s TV leading the charge. Several of American Idol‘sbiggest success stories - like Carrie Underwood and Scotty McCreery - are scorching up the country charts. Singer Blake Shelton has become a household name among non-country fans via his job as a coach on The Voice. (Additionally, Shelton’s wife, singer Miranda Lambert, is developing a drama at NBC.) This summer, ABC cast Sugarland member Jennifer Nettles as a judge on Duets, and next up Idol is close to signing country singer Keith Urban as a new judge for 2013. “For country stars, there’s a wonderful opportunity to broaden your fan base through this type of exposure,” Nettles says.
Plus, there seems to be a country music awards show virtually every other month. Fox got into the game in 2010 with its American Country Awards, a rival to the CMA Awards (ABC), the Academy of Country Music Awards (CBS) and the CMT Music Awards (CMT). “It’s a very passionate audience,” says CMT programming strategy senior vice president Mary Beth Cunin. “Country music artists are so approachable and real that it leads to that very intimate connection with the fans.”
ABC swiped the CMA Awards from CBS in 2006, and it’s proven to be such a good fit for the network’s female-skewing, adult 18-49 audience that ABC recently renewed its deal with the organization for 10 more years. Besides the awards, ABC will also showcase the CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock on Sept. 17, as well as a Christmas special. Chapman adds that the network’s relationship with the industry goes beyond those three events and includes an across-the-board embrace of country music.
“They’ve been very committed to integrating country across their full breadth of programming,” including Good Morning America, Live! With Kelly and Michael and Jimmy Kimmel Live, he says. “Even in primetime, they weave country music through the soundtracks of shows like Grey’s Anatomy,” he adds. “And you see a lot of country presence on shows like Dancing With the Stars. It’s not just the musical guests, but they’ve had contestants from the format too, like Sara Evans and Billy Ray Cyrus.”
In exchange, ABC has the support of CMA’s marketing team to help promote its fare. That will come in handy this fall, as the network launches both Nashville and Malibu Country, a new sitcom starring Reba McEntire.
In fact, it’s the CMA that helped make Nashville happen. The show came out of a desire by former CMA board and Grand Ole Opry Group president Steve Buchanan to get into the scripted TV business. He met with an ABC specials exec, who told him he needed a writer and fully fleshed out TV show pitch. Buchanan eventually was introduced to screenwriter Callie Khouri and filmmaker R.J. Cutler, and they in turn they connected with Lionsgate TV, which brought a pitch back to ABC. (Grand Ole Opry parent Gaylord Entertainment remains a producer on the show.)