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How CMT Is Lassoing in Millennials Viewers

A few years ago on a hot June night in Nashville, Country Music Television exec VP of development and events Jayson Dinsmore experienced an epiphany.

He was at CMA Music Fest, the annual outdoor music gathering held at the Tennessee Titans football stadium and throughout Music City that brings country music superstars, vets and newcomers face to face with their fans.
“Most of the people in attendance were young and in baseball caps and cut-off shorts, not belt buckles and cowboy boots,” he says. “Then, Jason Aldean sold out (Boston’s) Fenway Park and I realized that country is a state of mind and not regional.”

Eager to capitalize on country music’s youth movement that was ushered in by Taylor Swift and continues today with acts like Hunter Hayes, Sam Hunt and Kelsea Ballerini, Dinsmore and other executives at CMT initiated programming that would appeal primarily to millennials. The results have been impressive: Viewership is up 21% among millennials in total day and up 38% in primetime over the same time a year ago.

The effort began with “Party Down South,” CMT’s equivalent of MTV’s former ratings juggernaut “Jersey Shore.” The series, which follows the antics of eight young adults in search of a good time, launched in January 2014 and has been renewed for a fifth cycle. “‘Party Down South’ was borne out of trying to find people who would go see Jason at Fenway,” says Dinsmore, who joined the cabler in 2011 from NBC. “The young country music fans immediately found the show.”

“Party Down South” — CMT’s highest rated series — anchors the network’s Thursday-night programming block, which also features “Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team” (now in its 11th season after drawing its highest ratings last season) and new docu-series “I Love Kellie Pickler.” The latter’s November debut drew more than 2.5 million viewers, CMT’s highest premiere since 2012.

While courting millennials, CMT has been careful not to abandon its older viewers, who are fans of such programming as the long-running, acclaimed series “Crossroads,” which features a country and rock artist performing each other’s songs together. To that end, this year CMT began producing original documentaries on such topics as legendary country club Gilley’s and on Johnny Cash. A NASCAR series of specials is forthcoming.

In race-car parlance, Dinsmore says his job has been to expand CMT’s programming from one lane to several, all offering an opportunity to bring new viewers onto the CMT highway. At the same time, it bolsters annual high-rated events as June’s CMT Music Awards and CMT Artists of the Year.

Next up, CMT returns to scripted series with “Still the King,” a single-camera comedy starring Billy Ray Cyrus and Joey Lauren Adam, which will premiere next year. (The channel’s first scripted series, “Working Class,” aired for one season in 2011.) Dinsmore adds a second series has already been greenlit. “Having a brand-defining scripted series is very important,” he says. “The channels with the strongest brand identity have that.”

Earlier this year, as part of Viacom’s restructuring following MTV Networks exec Van Toffler’s exit, CMT switched from under his purview to the Kids and Family Group, the same division that houses Nickelodeon and TV Land.

“They are very precise in their strategy because they have to be,” Dinsmore says. “When they order a series, they already have the Halloween costumes and video games in development.

The new group also stresses patience and giving a show the latitude to find its audience. “It allows us the opportunity to be more focused and let things grow.”

Looking ahead, Dinsmore sees continued expansion with multiple scripted series and “big-event series in the documentary and music space.”One thing is for sure. Every offering will stress the M in CMT, he says: “Music continues to be in our DNA.”

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