Then there's Country Music Television. CMT is, as the millennials say, #blessed. No matter how many times the network has to change their strategy to keep up with the latest trends, at the end of the day, it has laser-sharp focus on what it needs to be about: country music.
The Viacom-owned network uses this to its distinct advantage, even though it faces the same challenge as sister channels MTV and VH1 – how to attract people who still lament the lack of music videos. CMT invests heavily in music, particularly as its native Nashville has exploded into the mainstream. But the network — which presents its new line-up at the cable upfronts in New York on Thursday — also prioritizes its musical roots in everything, including original scripted series, appearing on CMT this year for only the second time in network history.
"We have one of the clearest brands in all of television. Having that clear a filter really is a head start, right?" said Jayson Dinsmore, executive vice president of development, during an interview with CMT's top brass. "Our format may change, our shows may change, but our core values will remain the same. It's all driven by the sensibilities of our biggest stars."
Wait, you say: Isn't CMT's top-rated original show a bunch of young fools partying "Jersey Shore"-style, except it's called "Party Down South"? How is that focused on country music stars?
Ah ha – it's about the stars' fans. "We specifically looked at who was listening to country music and said, 'Let's put some of those shows on our channel'….it's a much younger country music fanbase," Dinsmore said. "It's not all belt buckles and cowboy boots anymore. It's baseball caps and tank tops."
"And reckless abandon!" added CMT president Brian Philips.
While purist country fans may be offended by that description, it's also very accurate. In recent years, the genre has been dominated by popular singers who swap cowboy hats for baseball hats and bring with them a very young audience. CMT cleverly tapped into that culture and targeted millennials with "Party Down South" – which, although criticized for the antics of its heavy-drinking cast, could score about 3 million viewers a week across platforms.
Alas, CMT recognizes it needs a balance of modern and traditional. "Party Down South" will end for good after five seasons in April. And while "Steve Austin's Broken Skull Challenge" and "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team" are still performing solidly, executives admit they're looking for more "sophistication" in the network's unscripted slate. This led to several documentaries last year, "Johnny Cash: American Rebel," produced in partnership with the Cash family, and "Urban Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of Gilley's," tracing the phenomenon of the 1980 film.
Both did "surprisingly well," executives said. Two more documentaries are set to premiere at SXSW this spring: "The Bandit," about the making of 1970 hit "Smokey & the Bandit" and "Chicken People," centered on show chicken breeders.
CMT bosses were pleased with the Cash documentary, something that delved deeper thanks to the Nashville-based network's connections to the singer's family. "When you have the access and story that nobody else has, it's really gratifying to find an audience," Philips said. "We now have a footing with the kind of documentaries we've made, and we've got permission from the audience to go even further with storytelling about music."
What about the music? CMT banks on its longtime "Crossroads" specials where it mixes genres; upcoming episodes feature Luke Bryan and Jason Derulo, along with Thomas Rhett and Nick Jonas. The network also still plays music videos in a four-hour block each morning, though these days, it prides itself most of all on breaking unknown artists – especially in a climate where it's increasingly tough for new acts to get played on the radio, the most influential platform in the genre.
CMT recently went as far as to fund a music video for Chris Janson, an artist struggling to get a record deal. The network was also an early supporter of 2015 breakout star Kelsea Ballerini, and promoted her across all its platforms from CMT.com to the annual CMT Awards.
Leslie Fram, senior vice president of music strategy and talent, said her goal was to find new ways to showcase emerging new artists beyond the digital space. CMT Music, a 24-hour music video channel, now boasts "Artist Discovery," a rotation of videos from independent singers. A campaign called "Listen Up" introduces viewers to spotlight new performers. Two years ago, Fram launched "Next Women of Country" to promote female acts, who have a notoriously difficult time breaking into radio.
"Seeing the landscape at terrestrial radio, we can't control that, but we feel we can influence it," Fram said. "So if you listen to an hour of terrestrial radio, you might have one female. But if you watch CMT and our music hours, you'll see many more than that."
The last piece of the puzzle is scripted shows. Back in 2011, CMT launched its first original scripted series, a family comedy starring Melissa Peterman called "Working Class" that faded fairly quickly. However, with a schedule relying on syndicated reruns of blue-collar sitcoms like "Reba," "Last Man Standing" and "Raising Hope," CMT executives know their viewers like comedy.
Philips says they're developing original comedies this year with "musical gravitas": The first being "Still the King," a comedy starring Billy Ray Cyrus as a washed-up, one-hit wonder country music singer who turns his life around when he learns he has a 15-year-old daughter. (It's a passion project for Cyrus, who serves as a writer and executive producer.) The network also has high hopes for impending drama "Million Dollar Quartet," an eight-episode miniseries inspired by the Broadway musical, about the early days of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins.
It's all part of CMT's willingness to experiment, which of course leads to varying results. Some things work, like the quirky reality series "I Love Kellie Pickler" starring the former "American Idol" contestant; others don't, like when the channel tried to capitalize on late-night TV virality with the "The Josh Wolf Show." And executives say the channel's core brand won't be compromised, even while appealing to a large swath of viewers.
"I honestly think it's so exciting we have such a broad slate of programming coming," said Anthony Barton, senior vice president of marketing. While some people may raise an eyebrow now when they see a more mainstream show on CMT, he added, "I think in the very near future, that will never be an issue."