Why CMT Is Partying Down South and Just About Everywhere Else

As he rolls out reality show “Gainesville” and the network’s first scripted series, president Brian Philips tells TheWrap, “I don’t think things have to have a twang”

Last Updated: August 20, 2015 @ 8:18 PM

With Viacom’s core networks Comedy Central and MTV struggling with recent ratings declines, a rare bright spot for the media conglomerate has been good ol’ CMT.

The network launched in 1983 as a country-music version of MTV has grown its audience year over year for each of the last four years. Its average primetime rating among adults 18-49 has climbed 104 percent from 2010.

That growth has come on the back of a push into original unscripted series such as “Party Down South” and “Gainesville,” which premieres Thursday night.

In addition, the network plans to move into scripted programming as well. Production just began on the original comedy “Still the King,” a single-camera series starring Billy Ray Cyrus as, natch, a one-hit-wonder country singer.

The beefing up original programming reflects an evolution at CMT — a network that, like the youthful cast of “Gainesville,” is preparing for its next stage of life in a world where its ambitions are shared by pretty much all its peers.

CMT has made headway into original programming, which has increased 23 percent from 2010. The network’s most successful series, “Party Down South” — essentially “Jersey Shore” with rednecks, and created by that other show’s mastermind, SallyAnn Salsano — premiered in 2014.

The push reflects a fundamental truth in the TV business circa 2015: As the traditional cable-bundle frays, it isn’t enough to be a spunky, mid-tier cable network showing steady growth.

“The channels with the clearest brands that have a flagship series are the ones that stand out,” Jayson Dinsmore, CMT’s executive vice president of development, told TheWrap.

That filter is Southern. The network has deep roots in Southern culture, dating back to its days as Country Music Television. But unlike its ages-ago competitor The Nashville Network, which evolved into lip-sync battling Spike, CMT has hewn close to its base, growing as country music and the culture around it have expanded into a national phenomenon.

Its scripted projects, according to Phillips, will play to that identity and aspire to national audience. He points to unscripted “Gainesville” as an example of how.

“We could have shot it in Tallahassee,” he said. “We could have done it in Athens, Georgia. We could have done it anywhere in America. We could have done it in Colorado or Arizona. Country is everywhere. And I don’t think things have to have a twang to resonate on CMT.”

“Party Down South” is the highest rated for any series in the network’s history, and last summer averaged a 0.8 rating among adults 18-49 and 1.1 million total viewers in live viewing plus seven days of playback, according to Nielsen. The network’s next highest rated show, “Broken Skull Challenge,” also premiered last year.

Both series were developed under Dinsmore, who joined in 2011 from NBC. Under longtime network president Brian Philips, Dinsmore led a push into reality programming that has elevated the network’s profile and helped make it a much-needed bright spot in parent company Viacom’s portfolio.

Next up is “Gainseville,” an hour-long reality show follows a group of twentysomething friends dealing with family troubles, career woes, and major life decisions. (Lest it sound too highbrow, they also drink beer and hang out in bathing suits.)

“A thing that was important to CMT with these characters was, of course that they’re charismatic, but also that they’re at a transitional period in their life,” Yoav Attias, executive producer of “Gainesville,” told TheWrap.

In addition to “Still the King,” CMT  has two other unnamed scripted projects in development. Among them, Dinsmore said, “We have a drama series that will hopefully do for us what ‘Mad Men’ did for AMC.”

The “Mad Men”-AMC analogy is a go-to for programmers explaining why they’re moving into scripted. The former famously turned the latter from a classic-movies channel into a brand whose name is shorthand for great original drama. But that miracle has been rarely repeated — and not for lack of trying.

WGN, Bravo and Lifetime have all delved into scripted in the last two years. Spike recently re-entered the field with “Tut,” and Rich Ross-led Discovery is plotting a major move into scripted programming.

The rush of new buyers into the scripted marketplace was enough to compel FX Networks CEO John Landgraf to identify a content “bubble” when addressing the media at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in early August, and to predict a collapse of that bubble in the near future. “This is too much TV,” Landgraf said of the current landscape.

Dinsmore is undaunted by the talk of a bubble. He plans to put eight to 10 scripted projects into development per year, take two or three of those to pilot, and one to series going forward.

“It is a fractured marketplace,” Dinsmore said. “We actually do think that it might take two to three seasons to build an audience in a marketplace that’s this crowded.”

Philips echoes Dinsmore’s enthusiasm. CMT’s scripted programming, he told TheWrap, “will be differentiated by the fact that it comes from CMT’s point of view and the values and mores that are specific to CMT. When you have that filter and are able to apply it to scripted, it gives you a little bit of an advantage.”

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