New York— When it comes to what's on its air, CMT: Country Music Television is mimicking not only sister service MTV: Music Television, but Home Box Office and Home & Garden Television as well.
At an upfront event here earlier this month, CMT outlined a slate that included eight new shows set to launch throughout the year. Kaye Zusmann, CMT's vice president of program development and production, likened the new reality series Beauty Secrets—
in which a hidden camera records women making intimate revelations to their beauticians — to HBO's Taxicab Confessions.
"I'm never, ever telling my hair stylist anything now," Zusmann said.
Viacom Inc., which acquired CMT as part of its merger with CBS Corp. three years ago, is still making over the cable network, once just a country-music video jukebox. The channel is adding more original long-form programming — shows that move beyond country music.
To make that transition, over the past two years Viacom has tripled CMT's programming budget, which now stands between $30 million and $40 million, according to Zusmann.
CMT's new programming also includes reality fare such as Rodeo Road,
which follows cowboy hunks and their "buckle bunny" groupies on the bull-riding circuit; and CMT Ultimate Country Home,
featuring more than a dozen country stars redecorating a 3,600-square-foot mansion. That's home improvement, à la Home & Garden Television or TLC.
"Music will always be at the core of our network," Zusmann told the packed audience of media buyers at the upfront. "But we know that in order to grow our brand, we're going to have to expand our brand."
Under aggressive Viacom, CMT has also seen a jump in its distribution, and an uptick in its ratings.
Several years ago, under CBS, cable operators were dumping CMT for its cheaper rival, Great American County. Now, burgeoning CMT expects to reach 70 million subscribers by year-end.
Viacom's MTV Networks unit is currently negotiating a contract renewal with the National Cable Television Cooperative, which represents small operators that have 14 million subscribers. MTVN is trying to add CMT and TNN (soon to be Spike TV) to that deal, which to date has only covered networks such as MTV, Nickelodeon and VH1, according to sources.
The NCTC's deal with MTVN expired last June.
"We are in negotiations currently with MTVN for CMT and TNN," Frank Hughes, the NCTC's senior vice president of programming, said. "But the economics of an agreement for these nets must make sense for our members."
Messages left with an MTVN representative did not yield a comment on the NCTC talks.
CMT posted a 0.4 primetime rating in the first quarter, up 33% when compared with a year ago, according to Nielsen Media Research data supplied by the ABC Cable Networks Group.
Two years ago, when Zusmann joined CMT, 90% to 95% of its schedule consisted of videos. Now, 70% of its programming consists of videos, and its goal is a ratio of 50% videos to 50% originals by the start of 2005, she said.
CMT has a lot of aspirations.
"We want what every MTV network has, and that is a breakout defining original series," CMT general manager Brian Philips said. "It's the pop-culture references that the networks generate, whether it's SpongeBob
or The Osbournes."
To widen its audience, CMT is moving into four new areas: reality-fantasy programming, like Beauty Secrets; other music genres, with shows like CMT Crossroads
that pair rock and country artists like Kid Rock and Hank Williams Jr.; "extreme" sports, such as the rodeo show; and home decorating and home improvement, with Ultimate Homes.
"We want to be in the larger entertainment world," Philips said. "We want to expand the boundaries of the music and make a bunch of great original shows that have a strong tie to the music, but are more than just performance shows."
That's not to say that performance shows don't have a place. This month the CMT Flameworthy 2003 Video Music Awards
attracted more than 8.3 million viewers, and racked up a 2.0 rating, making it CMT's highest-rated program ever.
CMT's other mission is to educate Madison Avenue and dispel outdated stereotypes about the country-music audience, according to Zusmann. CMT's audience has become more mainstream as artists, like the Dixie Chicks, cross over into the general pop-music market. This has not gone unnoticed by ad agencies.
"I really liked how MTV kicked it up a notch," said Shari Anne Brill, vice president and director of programming services at Carat USA Inc. "I always had that hayseed image of the country-music fan. It's had an unbelievable makeover from what it was."
Country music and CMT now both have crossover appeal, according to Brill.
"They've succeeded in making it younger with a lot of broad appeal," she said. "I don't know if they're going to alienate the hayseeds."
GAC rising, too
With the help of MTVN's powerhouse affiliate-sales force, CMT's distribution has ballooned to 67.1 million.
In the meantime, CMT's rival in the country-music arena, the independent GAC, has also continued to grow, albeit at a slower pace. GAC officials declined to comment for this story, but the network is now at 24.3 million homes and has gained 5.2 million over the past year, according to Nielsen.
Several years ago, small operators representing several million subscribers switched out the CMT for GAC, including Massillon Cable in Massillon, Ohio.
Bob Gessner, president of Massillon Cable, said he has considered reinstating CMT. But he is an NCTC member, and so far he has opted not to launch CMT until it inks a deal with the co-op, although Massilon could strike a deal of its own.
GAC has an affiliation deal with the NCTC, and is popular with co-op members.
"Many of our members have chosen GAC as their 'core' country-music network these past few years and are very satisfied with that choice," Hughes said. "Due to the limitations of channel capacity, some of our members must choose to carry a limited genre of like networks on their analog.
"If all nets provided more flexibility [on analog or digital carriage], networks like CMT might get more carriage with those types of member companies."