Young demo prize captured by ABC

Sweet-talkin' net lures CMAs from CBS

The Country Music Assn.’s D-I-V-O-R-C-E from CBS after 35 years of broadcast bliss has Tammy Genovese wondering whether the org’s signature kudocast will find friends in new places.

For Genovese, the chief operating officer of the CMA, moving “Country’s Biggest Night” — the CMA Awards — to ABC brings up several questions that won’t be answered until the show airs tonight.

Will the event’s core audience find it on a new channel? Will enough new viewers tune in to justify ending a network partnership that spanned three decades? (Cue “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”) And how can the show be freshened up on ABC — but not too freshened up?

The CMA’s decision to move the show is the stuff straight out of a honkytonk jukebox: Execs at a scorned CBS are still stunned by the org’s decision to pack up and leave for a younger rival. Genovese admits making the move wasn’t an easy choice — and only came after ABC mounted an incredibly aggressive campaign to steal away the CMA Awards.

“This was a long and drawn-out decision,” she says. “We’re a little nervous, but also excited about the switch.”

In other words, there are no tears in Genovese’s beer.

“We had a great run with CBS, but sometimes it helps to make a change,” she says. “It helps you think out of the box, which is what we were looking to do, and expand our market.”

ABC’s surprise CMA steal came in the midst of what should have been a routine contract renewal between the org and CBS.

After all, the CMA wasn’t originally looking to swap broadcast partners. Insiders say CBS was told that the deal was protected. Even Genovese says the org was taken aback at first when it heard word that ABC was interested in opening up a dialogue.

“We certainly can’t not talk,” Genovese says.

ABC’s Andrea Wong, exec VP of alt programming, specials and latenight, spearheaded the talks for the net and traveled several times to Nashville in 2005 to seal the deal, along with ABC specials director Mark Bracco. Wong says the CMA’s strong young adult demos — third only to the Academy Awards and the Grammys among kudofests — made landing the awards show a priority for the net.

“It’s one of the strongest annual franchises that exist right now in terms of specials,” she says. “It gets a solid rating year in and year out.”

Alphabet net laid out a wide-ranging advertiser and promotional strategy and — even more key — flaunted ABC’s success among adults 18-49. Execs pointed out that shows like “Desperate Housewives” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” score big with young, Middle America viewers — the same aud the CMA would like to attract more of.

Several of the net’s primetime shows have been featuring country songs and/or artists, and ABC even noted that it calls itself “America’s Broadcast Network” — a patriotic nod that probably scores points with Heartland country fans.

“This gave us an opportunity to look at our show and reach a younger demo,” Genovese says. “It seemed to make sense to go with ABC because of their vision to embrace country in a bigger way.”

For their final presentation, ABC trotted out the big guns: Joining Wong and Bracco in Nashville were ABC Entertainment prexy Steve McPherson and ABC Entertainment TV Group exec VP Mark Pedowitz.

On the other side of the table, repping the CMA: entertainment attorney Joel Katz, Genovese and CMA executive director Ed Benson.

ABC ultimately agreed to pay substantially more than the $9 million CBS had been paying annually in license fees; insiders, however, note that CBS was prepared to go that high as well.

The CMA says the license fee bump only played a small role in the decision to go with the Alphabet net.

“They were neck and neck in terms of their offers,” Genovese says. “ABC just had more of what we were looking for in terms of a vision and a future with our product. We just seemed to fit with the ABC goals and objectives … We appreciated their aggressiveness. When they decided they were going to go for it, they went full force.”

Still, insiders familiar with the deal say that the way things went down didn’t sit well with CBS. (Eye execs declined to comment.) For one thing, the Eye was told that a renewal was in the works, as long as CEO Leslie Moonves flew down to Nashville. Moonves did and strongly urged the CMA board to stick with a network that had seen the CMAs through ups and downs and helped turn the show into a TV powerhouse.

Net execs — already annoyed at having to restate their case after working together for 35 years — also pointed out that CBS stations remain powerhouses in the markets where country music sells the most, including Southern markets like Nashville and Tulsa.

In the end, though, CMA pacted with ABC for six years, the longest the org had negotiated a deal for the kudofest; CBS’ previous deal spanned four years. Eye execs were informed via email.

Genovese says the org also was motivated to switch nets because of CBS’ already heavy diet of music awards specials. The Eye continues to broadcast the Grammy Awards and the Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards — a rival country music kudofest that, given the similar acronym, is often confused with the CMAs.

“We won’t get lost in the shuffle,” she says of the ABC alliance.

As part of the newfound relationship, ABC also signed a pact to air a special revolving around the CMA Music Festival, dubbed “Country Music’s Biggest Party.” ABC got a jump on the country beat by airing the first CMA Music Fest special in summer 2005.

“There’s such an enthusiasm on the part of this network in having the CMA franchise,” Wong says.

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