'Nashville' Is CMT's Best Shot at Changing Its Business

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CMT is betting that "Nashville" can help transform it from a niche music network into an entertainment brand with nationwide appeal.

To pull that off, the Viacom cable channel is fervently chasing "Nashies," the passionate "Nashville" viewers whom it hopes will not only follow the series when it moves to CMT this Thursday from ABC, which dropped it after last season, but stick around for other country music-themed scripted series and reality fare.

"It's an investment in bringing some occasional viewers to us on an everyday basis," said Anthony Barton, senior VP-marketing, CMT.

CMT could surely use the sampling. It barely scratches the top 50 cable networks, averaging just north of 300,000 viewers on any given night. And network executives made a strategic decision last year to end its most high-profile unscripted series, "Party Down South," CMT's equivalent of "The Jersey Shore," to focus on developing more polished programming.

"In the past with our music we always got very high quality artists who were glamorous, but some of our early reality shows were loud and rowdier and not always the prettiest cast," Mr. Barton said.

"Nashville" is surely CMT's best chance at lifting its fortunes. While the drama had lost about 30% of its first-season audience by the end of its fourth run on ABC, it still averaged 4.2 million viewers and a 1.0 rating among the all-important 18-to-49 demographic. It also attracts a relatively upscale audience.

The premiere of CMT's most recent success, the scripted series "Still the King," drew 2.2 million viewers in live-plus-same-day viewing with a simulcast across three Viacom networks. Its 13-episode season this summer averaged 397,000 viewers, however, and a 0.12 rating in the 18-to-49 demo. CMT renewed it for a second season.

"Nashville" is also arriving as CMT is once again reshuffled within Viacom's portfolio of cable networks. With Robert Bakish taking over Viacom in October, CMT moved from the Kids and Family Group to the newly formed Global Entertainment Group. CMT first shifted into the Kids and Family Group in February 2015 when Viacom consolidated its three top network groups into two.

For all the name recognition of "Nashville" and the fervor of its fans, it is a challenge to retain viewers when a show moves networks. "Nashville" ratings aren't expected to near ABC levels.

But it will likely be the highest-rated series on CMT's schedule. And with an estimated 10% overlap between "Nashville" viewers and reoccurring CMT viewers, there's an opportunity to reach an audience who isn't familiar with the channel.

"Surprisingly, we found that despite similar tones, most 'Nashville' fans weren't regular CMT viewers," Mr. Barton said.

To turn that around, CMT is using the premiere of "Nashville" to debut a brand refresh on-air and online that's meant to erase any perception of CMT as a regional music channel.

At the same time, CMT is also working to appeal to a broader group of advertisers.

Already, "Nashville" is attracting brands like Apple and Taco Bell, neither of which had previously considered CMT for prominent sponsorships, said Adam Steingart, senior VP-integrated marketing, CMT.

CMT picked up "Nashville" after upfront negotiations between ad buyers and Viacom were already done. But Mr. Steingart said the network didn't have a problem selling the series in the so-called scatter market that goes year-round.

American Express and Sony Pictures sponsored a one-hour sneak peak of "Nashville" that aired last month. And Coca-Cola has signed on for a multi-episode integration.

To satisfy the appetite of "Nashies," CMT is considering developing sponsored content to live on other platforms, including a live digital after-show.

"Nashville" is also getting CMT's biggest marketing campaign to date, with the network buying commercial time in college football, the finale of NBC's "The Voice" and the upcoming broadcast of "The Golden Globe Awards." It also ran promos in movie theaters before blockbuster films like "Star Wars: Rogue One."

Since CMT first announced it was reviving the canceled series in June, the network's social and marketing teams have been embedding themselves among "Nashies," engaging in frequent conversations and providing them with behind-the-scenes access to the set and other exclusive content.

The goal is to make CMT part of "Nashville" fans' rituals and help them establish new ones, Mr. Barton said.

"They deserve respect and we want them to know we are fans too," Mr. Barton said.

"Nashies" have already begun to show their gratitude for saving the series. Fans used the hashtag #Nashies4StilltheKing to help support the debut of that drama, which stars Billy Ray Cyrus, as a thank you to CMT for picking up "Nashville."

And CMT gave "Nashies" a present during the holidays, airing the first hour of the season 5 premiere. Part of the motivation was to get fans started on finding CMT on their program guides before the season started in earnest. But Viacom also ran the episode across five of its channels to maximize exposure. The episode was watched by 1.7 million people in total, with CMT averaging 423,000. CMT averaged 700,000 viewers for the episode in live-plus-three-days ratings.

"We wanted to show that the program is certainly the same quality that you got on ABC," Mr. Barton said. "This is not a cable version of a broadcast show."

Promoting "Nashville" isn't just a priority within CMT's walls, but is also a larger corporate effort. Viacom's portfolio of channels have been touting the drama with more than just a barrage of spots. TV Land and BET shot custom spots to promote the show, while Comedy Central aired "Drunk History" episodes about the city of Nashville and American Music.

Of course, one show doesn't make a network. CMT intends to use "Nashville" to usher in a year-round calendar of original scripted series, reality programming and events, including the debut of its new series, "Sun Records," in February. The big question is, just how grateful are the "Nashies"?