Country’s New Script, Thanks to Scripps

2/06/2005 7:00 PM Eastern

If the deal with DirecTV Inc. drove distribution at Great American Country last year, trading on synergies within the Scripps Networks family should key channel growth in 2005.

With the addition of some 10.1 million customers from the satellite leader, the country music network boosted its base to 37 million, a 38% rise in 2004. The subscriber gain was the third highest of any cable network last year, says Scripps senior vice president Ed Hardy. He’s been guiding the channel since Scripps closed its $140 million deal to acquire the network from Jones Media Networks Ltd. last November.

Although Hardy stops short of making overall carriage predictions for 2005, he’s encouraged by the addition of 360,000 subscribers in Bright House Network’s flagship Orlando, Fla., system in December and a like number of Comcast Corp. customers in Chattanooga, Tenn., last week.

Record-industry trends should also work in GAC’s favor. Citing data from the Country Music Association, Hardy says unit sales of the country genre grew 12% last year, while all other genres rose only 1.6%. “No doubt, country’s hot again,” he says.

Hardy notes that the added clout of being part of a large network group should help it to narrow the gap on MTV Network’s 77-million home CMT. He says most of the 27 GAC employees from the Jones days — including president Jeff Wayne and five of six affiliate team members — are now with Scripps.

Hardy says GAC also will benefit from exposure with promos now running across Food Network, HGTV, Do It Yourself and Shop at Home.

Although the content is different, Hardy says GAC loyalists share a passion for country music that’s similar to the passion that HGTV and Food evokes in their viewers. And he believes that will result in cross-selling of ads.

“The core audiences for these services are adults 25 to 54,” he says. “We also have a lot of ideas about adding creative that we believe sponsors will be interested in during the upfront.”

New changes are in the wind not only in the form of a facilities upgrade, but GAC is also planning a spate of new production. Before that takes place, the network is initiating a research project on audience and lifestyle analysis, which is expected to be completed this summer. Results will be used to tinker with program development going forward.

Leading the program charge is Sarah Trahern, formerly vice president of programming at sister service Shop at Home, whose career includes time as an independent producer. She’s bent on creating not only more long-form fare, but interstitial and wraps that will underscore GAC’s musical emphasis.

GAC considers music — as well as programming about artists and their lifestyles — to be a differentiator from rival CMT.

“CMT is going after adults 18 to 34. We want to continue to serve the core country fan,” Hardy says.