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CMT Stays True to Music Fans While Moving Forward in Original Scripted TV

Carrie Underwood CMT
Wade Payne/Invision/AP

It’s barely been a year since CMT, long the television home of country music, and more recently a breeding ground of all manner of reality shows, decided to move forcefully into scripted entertainment. The network is plotting the second season of the Billy Ray Cyrus-starring “Still the King,” preparing to bow its eight-hour miniseries on the famous meeting of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis, dubbed “Million Dollar Quartet,” and also overseeing a thriving sideline in documentary production.

But suffice to say, the network could hardly have hoped for a more appropriate existing show to help broadcast its commitment to scripted TV than ABC’s “Nashville,” whose fifth season will debut on CMT next January.

“Our love of ‘Nashville’ probably even predates our full-on commitment to scripted,” CMT president Brian Philips says. “It’s as if the two ideas met at the most convenient time.”

Indeed, CMT had even given the show’s cast a special award at its last Artists of the Year kudocast, and sprung into action as soon as ABC announced it wouldn’t be renewing the show.

“Our conversations began the minute the show became available, and the deal was closed easily and seamlessly with Lionsgate,” Philips says. “‘Nashville’ is emblematic of so many things that live in the essence of CMT. It’s got music at the center, intriguing characters at the edges, and it’s a great builder of our national identity as a television network and our identity as a city. It’s just the right show at the right time.”

The network also saw a strong start for “Still the King” earlier this summer, and is already planning on its second season. And Philips is particularly high on “Million Dollar Quartet,” which shot on location in Memphis, directed by Roland Joffe, and featuring Chad Michael Murray as Sun Studios honcho Sam Phillips.

With the show focusing on a pivotal moment in music history half a century ago, Philips agrees that contemporary country music fans might not be as intimately familiar with the significance of that event as generations past, but pledges that the series will be more than a simple reenactment of music history, tackling the moment as a coming-of-age story, with nods to the civil-rights struggles that were percolating all around Memphis at the time.

“You have to reignite interest,” he says. “Otherwise it sounds like a musical history lesson. Which it certainly contains, but you can’t presume that anyone 18-49 would have that as part of their understanding of musical history. We don’t count on viewers having a deep existing understanding of that period in music, we count on them being snared by our trailers and the buzz around the story.”

And indeed, while Philips says that the network’s scripted series will likely keep country music themes as a throughline going forward, he notes programming will continue to reflect the more flexible, borderless vision of country music that currently dominates country radio. The most recent CMT Awards, for example, brought in a host of cross-genre collaborators including Pharrell, Fifth Harmony, and Pitbull. And this year’s episodes of the crossover-focused “CMT Crossroads” have featured the likes of Jason Derulo, Alicia Keys, and Nick Jonas.

“We no longer have anyone in America who listened exclusively to country music in their youth,” Philips says. “It just doesn’t happen anymore. That’s what the CMT crossover and collaboration model works to serve.

“Part of the mission of CMT and the stories we’re telling, the central theme is that we’re exploring the tension between tradition and change. That sounds like a modern idea in Nashville, unless you remember that that’s where Hank Williams came in. It’s always been true in country music.

“There’s always a new guard, and always a traditionalist point of view that things must not change. We try to evolve with the music, and there’s always tension around that. It makes for good storytelling and it makes for good conversation.”