CMT changes its tune

Exex say net's been moving in a new direction for over a year

HOLLYWOOD — It’s a move few saw coming — Miss America sashayed her way from ABC to country music cabler CMT.

Still, it was well before the women’s networks — the next seemingly logical venue for the pageant — took their meetings with the Miss America Organization, that CMT laid out its plan for pageant execs.

Miss America auds coincide with CMT fans, they argued.

“They’re the heartland, Americana, everything between the coasts,” says programming/development veep Paul Villadolid.

So last month when the org came calling, CMT was able to edge a competing offer from cabler WE: Women’s Entertainment.

Coup surprised TV business watchers, but CMT execs say they’ve been moving in a new, broader direction for more than a year.

In other words, grabbing Miss America signals the onset of an extra-aggressive CMT. Rival cablers harp on the pageant’s declining numbers, but delivering even a fraction of the 9.8 million viewers ABC drew in 2004 would be a boon for any basic cabler.

CMT, available in more than 77 million homes, has been looking to break out of its niche status since last year.

Cabler’s already got impressive stats: It skews 55% female and has a median age of 39. Net chief Brian Philips installed a Santa Monica, Calif.-based programming team, headed by Villadolid, a little over a year ago.

And while the net has by no means abandoned country music, the resulting broader-based reality skeins including “Popularity Contest” and “Cowboy U” have achieved record ratings for the net in primetime.

The revamped direction and content was a big draw for Miss America, according to execs. Org says the potential promotional power of the MTV Networks Group also tipped the scale CMT’s way.

VH1 will play a big part in the promo push, running related “Miss America” programming leading up to next year’s contest, and may even repurpose the show after it runs on CMT.

“We’re going to help update the contest, not overhaul it,” Valladolid says. “CMT’s a strong brand and Miss America is going to be an important piece of our portfolio in the same way our sister networks have big tentpoles (like the MTV Video Music Awards) that help define them.”

CMT is making inroads into the territory of the larger cablers.

For the second quarter, CMT attracted an average of 304,000 viewers in primetime and boosted 18-34 demos by 22%. Ad revenues also jumped 20% — $106 million this year vs. $88 million in 2004 — according to Kagan World estimates.

Up next on the sked are behind-the-scenes skein “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making the Team,” and doc series “American Soldier,” a sort of real-life “Over There.”

Execs emphasize that music will always come first, and the overwhelming majority of original programming on CMT remains music-centric. Look for a doc following “American Idol” champ Carrie Underwood as she makes her first country record Sept. 17.

As for “Soldier,” Philips says country music has been “quite reflective of what’s going on in the country and in Iraq. In fact, the genre has really stepped up and told the story of these soldiers, both at home and overseas.”

“What ‘American Soldier’ does is visualize what the songs are talking about.”

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