CMT Looks for Ways to Capitalize on Becoming the ‘Nashville’ Network

How will the network compel viewers to stick around after the Bluebird Cafe's closing hours?

Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre Nashville
Courtesy of ABC

In the seminal days of music cable webs, CMT used to be in competition with the long-gone Nashville Network. Now, you could almost call CMT the “Nashville” network, which is to say, the channel best known for picking up the obsessively viewed nighttime drama of that name after ABC handed Deacon and Juliette their walking papers. CMT execs believe as many as half of its “Nashville” viewers are brand new to the network. How to make sure they stick around after the Bluebird Cafe’s closing hours?

That challenge has fallen largely to another CMT newbie: general manager Frank Tanki, who in June came in from the Viacom E-suite upon the exit of 16-year CMT veteran Brian Philips. (His new duties also include running sister network TV Land.) Tanki inherited a change in programming philosophy already taking shape, bringing his own ideas about how to further owning the country music and lifestyle space and moving more deeply into digital and experiential initiatives.

Picking up “Nashville” “has been a tremendous decision for this brand,” says Tanki. “It starts with the episodes themselves, but also has to do with the very modern, very welcoming way our teams promoted and marketed that series. We’ve surrounded that series with a really high polish that has felt very premium in many ways.”

One example Tanki puts up is in the social media realm — a “NashChat” series on Facebook that keeps the conversation alive during the weeklong pauses in the drama. But the network is even prouder of a very meta beer commercial that was embedded into the show, providing a mixture of progressivism and advertising partnership that might’ve been provocative to at least a few red-state viewers. That ad, set in the show’s fictional universe, had Chris Carmack’s openly gay Will Lexington character walking into a honky-tonk that seems to be wary before warming up to him as a brother in suds.

That gentle geniality wasn’t always a hallmark of all the shows on a network that, as recently as last year, still had “Redneck Island” and the controversial “Party Down South” on the schedule, sometimes making for a rough juxtaposition with class-act properties like “CMT Crossroads” and “Next Women of Country.”

Those rowdier, less high-minded reality shows “did very well for CMT,” says Tanki. “But we’re in a different place right now. There are certain themes in those shows that we can carry forward, but we need to package them a bit differently and present them differently. Those elements of excitement and adversity and maybe even some humor are things that we’ll look for, but we’re going to do it in a different way moving forward.”

The new GM acknowledges “the pivot had already started” before his arrival at CMT in June: ”I think my role now is to be diligent about keeping that consistent and communicating what that brand essence is.” His experience at Viacom’s other networks, including the relaunch of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” at Nickelodeon, gave him some preparation on how to hone in on a target — which, in CMT’s case, entails an “uber-focus” on the late 20s through early 40s demo. He doesn’t single out females, but it goes without saying that a majority of the new eyeballs “Nashville” brought in belong to women. Perhaps not coincidentally, when he was the head of marketing and creative at Spike, he was charged with siphoning off some of the rampant testosterone associated with that formerly boys-only channel as it moved toward becoming the Paramount Channel, resulting in the network-redefining launch of “Lip-Synch Battle.”

Surrounding “Nashville” with some complementary programming is key. One drama that was initially seen as a chic companion piece to “Nashville” was the Elvis-centric drama “Sun Records,” a well-received limited event series that ran its course shortly before Tanki arrived.

On his watch, the “Nashville” complement he’s most excited about going forward is the yet-to-be-seen “Music City,” a show from Adam DiVello (“The Hills,” “Laguna Beach”) and Lionsgate (which also produces “Nashville”) “that, being about young, emerging artists who are chasing their dreams in the music industry, then getting into all the touchpoints of relationships and emotions, feels like the perfect follow-up to ‘Nashville’” — and a chance to do right by Southern reality.

“We have to keep music at the heart of everything we’re doing,” says Tanki. “Music obviously touches everything we do.” Or maybe it’s not so obvious — at sister network MTV, and sometimes CMT, too, music fans among the viewership have been known to complain that the “M” in the name sometimes gets neglected. But the GM talks up expanding the channel’s performance franchises. Next year, Tanki wants to look more at moving into live events, a la this past summer’s steps toward turning the CMT Awards into a multi-day fan affair. “I think we have a real opportunity specifically with ‘Next Women of Country’ to really take that to the level,” Tanki says, declining to elaborate just yet on how, though he emphasizes plans are in the offing to ramp up CMT’s efforts toward gender parity in the genre.

Right now, though, the GM’s biggest personal priority is to expand the network’s presence online, and that, like the channel’s prime-time programming, has very little to do with music videos or specials. “We’ve commissioned a lot of original content that we’re going to do on digital that will go beyond just music,” he says. “Certainly music will be a part of it. But when we look into the white space of country lifestyle, themes like fashion, food and cooking, and DIY are where we feel like we can connect with our audience on the digital space.”