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ACM Awards Serve as Showcase for Future Country Stars

After last year’s 50th birthday extravaganza took the Academy of Country Music Awards from its usual stomping grounds at MGM’s Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas to Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, ACM CEO Bob Romeo knew it would be a tall order to top the golden anniversary spectacular. So he decided not to try.

“Our focus has shifted to growing the ACM’s Party for a Cause,” he says. “We think that can become a premier event and draw 40,000 to 50,000 per night.”

In its fourth edition, the three-day outdoor event at Las Vegas Festival Grounds features nearly 40 acts, including Carrie Underwood headlining a day of all-female artists April 1, Dierks Bentley closing the show April 2 and Kenny Chesney helming April 3, concurrently as the awards show airs on CBS.

“We’re really tailoring the festival for fans who couldn’t get tickets to the awards show,” Romeo says. Ticket proceeds from Party for a Cause benefit Lifting Lives, the ACM’s charitable arm, which supports programs aiding military vets.

That’s not to say the awards show won’t go on. It will and in strong fashion with some striking changes this year. Most noticeably, Bentley co-hosts with Luke Bryan, stepping in for Blake Shelton, who co-hosted for the past several years — first with Reba McEntire and then with Bryan. “We knew it would be pretty hard to find someone who’s going to fill Blake’s shoes and were wrestling with it,” Romeo says. “Luke suggested Dierks. I think it’s going to go over really well.”

This year will also see the new female vocalist, new male vocalist, new vocal duo or group and entertainer of the year categories shift back to industry voting after eight years of fan balloting for the winner among the industry-nominated finalists. The rise in social media made it harder to control the fan votes with more than 1.2 million ballots cast last year.

“I was getting calls saying, ‘We don’t think this act is following the rules,’ ” says Romeo. “It’s a real issue for the artists. Between that and just trying to police social media, we made the decision to suspend fan voting.”

Jason Aldean, Tim McGraw, Chris Stapleton, Underwood, Keith Urban, Florida Georgia Line, Shelton and Bryan are among the artists who will appear on the April 3 telecast, to air live starting at 8 p.m. ET (delayed PT).

The ACMs differ from the Country Music Assn. Awards (CMAs), which also honor the top performers in country, in that the ACMs are “a little more irreverent,” Romeo says, since his show takes place in Las Vegas, while the fall CMAs air from Nashville. “It’s a little easier for me to break away from that since we’re not based there.”

But at the end of the day, “It’s about promoting country music and putting these newcomers out there,” he says, citing up-and-comers like Cam, Kelsea Ballerini and Thomas Rhett, all of whom will appear this year.

For the past several years, the ACMs asked talent appearing on the show to stick around the next night to tape a separate two-hour themed special — past showcases have included salutes to George Strait, the women of country, and Lionel Richie — that would air in the spring on CBS. This year, the hope was to tape Party for a Cause for a special, but the costs were too high, so Romeo says the idea shifted to filming the ACM Honors, which take place at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium in late summer, for the second CBS special.

Last year’s expanded milestone ACM Awards show drew its largest overall audience in 17 years, and a 10% ratings spike over 2014 with total viewership just shy of 16 million.

“Am I expecting us to take a little hit this year? I can lie and say no, but in reality, we could be off by 10%,” Romeo says. “I don’t control the TV gods. I just want to produce a good show.”

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