ABC hoping to draw beyond broadcast's healthy core audience

Will viewers tune in for tonight’s Country Music Assn. Awards’ first-ever airing on ABC to see former “American Idol” champ Carrie Underwood?

Will they tune in for perhaps their first glimpse at singer Sara Evans since she left the Alphabet web’s “Dancing With the Stars” in October to spend more time with her family — after filing scandal-filled divorce accusations against her husband?

Will they tune in to see if anyone says anything about Keith Urban, aka Mr. Nicole Kidman, spending the evening at a rehabilitation center for alcoholism rather than onstage?

If not all of the above, new CMA home ABC is counting on enough of the above to build upon the broadcast’s healthy core audience and score a big night in the ratings.

“Sara Evans’ decision to quit ‘Dancing With the Stars’ has now raised her profile tremendously,” Knoxville (Tenn.) News Sentinel television critic Terry Morrow says. “Folks will watch just to see how she’s doing. Like Carrie Underwood, she is someone with whom they are invested.”

Though the CMAs are ignored by some urban auds (if not Urban auds), loyal fans have made the show a consistent ratings hit. Last year’s broadcast dominated its night in total viewers and won all but one half-hour in key demos. In 2004, the broadcast gave CBS its best Tuesday night performance in three years.

“A lot of people hate country music, so they’d rather rip their ears off than hear it,” Chicago Sun-Times TV critic Doug Elfman says. “And the people who like country music want to marry it, so they’re hardcore and they’ll probably watch it no matter what.”

The CMAs will feature such participants as Brooks & Dunn, Kenny Chesney, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, George Strait and Gretchen Wilson. For die-hards, the appearance of Chesney has “obvious appeal,” according to Morrow.

“He’s a huge concert draw, and his CDs always debut high,” Morrow says. “Seeing him perform on the show will be one of those must-see events for fans.”

If there’s a best bet for a national draw, however, it’s Underwood.

“I do think some people who don’t usually listen to country would tune in to see Carrie,” Elfman says. “She’s got the ‘Idol’ fame and a good enough crossover voice, which at this point means she’s just vanilla-country enough not to turn off those people who hate the traditional country music that is basically dead on country radio. In other words, Carrie’s got that Faith Hill thing that sells.”

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