With 'Nashville', 'Sun Records', CMT Aims to Reinvent Itself for Evolving Audience

Sarah Rodman
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Sun Records

As CMT refreshes its brand, one tradition will not be altered: its dedication to country music, an area in which the network has been much more progressive than its radio counterparts.

NASHVILLE — Outside the CMT building, Nashville is booming.

Cranes dot the skyline downtown, and thousands of tourists flood the neon-lighted clutch of clubs on Lower Broadway. In recent years, Music City has gained “It City” status, with new arrivals prompting a surge in everything from retail and real-estate ventures to food culture.

Fortunately for CMT (otherwise known as Country Music Television), “Nashville” is also booming.

When ABC canceled the soapy, country-centric drama in 2016, CMT saw an opportunity. Not only could it breathe new life into the series but it could also expand its umbrella with a more inclusive approach to programming to attract a broader, and more upscale, audience.

Network executives were already tinkering with the reinvention, but slating “Nashville” for a January premiere helped speed the process.

“We knew we were inviting a lot of new people to go out on a date with us,” says Anthony Barton, senior vice president of consumer marketing and brand creative for CMT. “And we wanted to make sure our house was ready when they got there.”

The date went well: The fifth-season premiere notched the highest rating for an original program in CMT history -- nearly 2 million viewers across CMT and Nick at Nite -- besting the previous record holder, the 2012 premiere of reality show “Redneck Island.”

While ratings for the first half of the season are a fraction of what they were when “Nashville” was on ABC, that’s still good news for a niche network, especially since that rising tide has lifted the boat for another new CMT series, “Sun Records.”

Inspired by the stage musical “Million Dollar Quartet,” “Sun Records” tells the rock ‘n’ roll origin story of the famed label that launched the careers of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. It drew more than 2 million viewers when it ran after the recent “Nashville” episode that featured the farewell of Connie Britton’s character, Rayna Jaymes.

There’s a symmetry to putting a fresh coat of paint on a familiar show and relaunching the network in a place where growth has been a hot topic.

“CMT reminds me a lot of Nashville itself,” says “Nashville” star Charles Esten. “Nashville was on the rise and making moves before we got here, but (the show’s) arrival sort of coincided with that, and the two of us really served each other well. I think it’s the same thing with CMT with these goals.”

“We really didn’t lean into the appeal of Nashville,” says Brian Phillips, president of CMT, sitting with Barton and Leslie Fram, senior vice president of music and talent, on a recent morning in a conference room in the network’s colorful offices downtown.

“There’s a sort of modern culture of country that’s emerged over the last couple of years, and that’s at the foundation of what we do,” Phillips adds. “It’s tradition, because that’s fundamental to country music, and it’s also being willing to step into change.”

Pleased to be a part of that change is “Sun Records” show runner Leslie Greif (“Texas Rising”), to whom Jayson Dinsmore, executive vice president for development for CMT, reached out with a challenge: “‘What would be an interesting piece that would be musical but fun and classy and something that’s not expected?’”

“Sun Records” was born of that challenge.

“This is the kind of thing you’d only get with an HBO, and the fact CMT allowed us to do something like this got me really excited,” says Greif.

As CMT refreshes its brand, one tradition will not be altered: its dedication to country music, an area in which the network has been much more progressive than its radio counterparts.

In addition to featuring mainstream performers such as Luke Bryan and Carrie Underwood, the network has routinely showcased new acts and female artists and championed vintage names and those in the folk and Americana-leaning arenas.

“We’ve always been able to do anything under that country umbrella. Whether it was the Lumineers to Sturgill Simpson or Jason Isbell,” says Fram. “We’ve been a home to even unsigned artists. Booking these shows, I feel it’s always about balance — who’s a breakout star that we can expose? Let’s make sure that we have enough female artists that are represented and also a nod to tradition.”

Chris Janson is one of those artists CMT took a chance on, playing him before he was signed to a major label. CMT even bankrolled, for the first time in its history, a video for his eventual No.2 hit, “Buy Me a Boat.”

“If they choose to take it in a broader spectrum, I think that’s a good thing,” says Janson, now nominated for two ACM awards next month. “It’s an eclectic community, and you’ve got to try and hit a little bit of everybody.”

Fram also notes that CMT, by way of its awards shows and long-running “Crossroads” series, has enlisted artists from other genres (Adele, Meghan Trainor, Jill Scott and Nick Jonas) for unexpected collaborations with country performers. They’ve paired Maren Morris with Alicia Keys and Elvis Costello with Lucinda Williams. (Country crossover star Darius Rucker recently filmed a “Crossroads” episode with Heartland rocker John Mellencamp, scheduled for March 24.)

“Music is literally our muse,” Dinsmore says a few days later in the Viacom building in Hollywood that houses CMT’s West Coast operations. “It is the front door for everything that we do.” Dinsmore adds there are plans for four to six more scripted series, including the soapy comedy “His Wives and Daughters,” to join “Nashville” and returning series “Still the King” in the next year. The reality space will be beefed up, including shows in the dating sphere. Following the success of several documentaries — on everything from Johnny Cash to a look at films like “Smokey and the Bandit” — a chronicle of Southern rockers Lynyrd Skynyrd is set for 2018.

Barton envisions the new version of CMT as “being a bit of a curator of modern country culture,” citing the farm-to-table movement and the gig economy as examples. “I think the more we invite new people to the table, we hope that they find something that they want to stay with. Because maybe we do surprise them a little bit.”

That is an admitted pivot from recent, and recently canceled, programming like the raucous reality shows “Redneck Island” and “Party Down South.”

“I would, of course, defend those shows for their heart, and everything they did for us, business-wise,” says Barton. “But when the time to move on came, we don’t lament moving on.”

“It’s more of a decision to play in the larger television landscape and not be marginalized by stereotypes,” says Phillips.

“I think for years we’ve kind of wanted CMT to become what it now is, which is this broader approach to country music, more modern and more in line, I think, with where the audience really is,” says Cody Alan, host of “CMT Hot 20 Countdown.”

Alan recently publicly came out as gay and says the positive feedback from artists and fans might surprise some who think of the genre as largely conservative.

“We’ll take the show on the road for a festival or a concert to different places around the country, and yes, you probably have some of those stereotypes represented in the people I meet,” he says. “But you also have a lot of people who are not what you expect from a country music fan.”

Those are the potential viewers CMT hopes to court with its new approach.

“We were beginning to get branded as the redneck channel,” says Dinsmore. “I think if you look at the channel now, the faces that you’ll see are so much more reflective of the brand that we want to be. Everyone’s invited.”


(Times staff writer Chris Barton contributed to this report.)






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