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Landing 'Opry' show a 'coup' for network

October 24, 2003

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That's how Great American Country trumpeted its acquisition earlier this fall of Grand Ole Opry Live, the televised portion of country music's signature radio show.

It might sound dramatic, but to President Jeff Wayne, ''coup'' is none too strong a word when it comes to the impact he believes the Opry will have on the cable network's growth.

''It is a coup. It's in line with the step we needed to take for the network,'' he said. ''In order to be viewed as the best country music network, you need the Opry.''

The Opry is a cornerstone of GAC's strategy to double its reach to 50 million U.S. households in the next two or three years. It's a big goal for a network that took seven years to reach 25 million households. And it's competing for viewers with the well-established Country Music Television, which reaches 71 million U.S. households and had the Opry contract through Sept. 27.

''If they're aggressive at it, they have a good chance. But it will be a fight,'' said independent media analyst Robert Unmacht, noting that GAC owner Jones Media Networks doesn't have the kind of leverage with cable companies that CMT owner Viacom has.

Viacom also owns MTV and VH1 and can bundle the three networks together when negotiating with cable companies to include the channels in their lineups, he said.

'Signature show'

Across the country, more households have CMT with their cable subscription than have GAC. CMT ranks No. 42 among all cable networks in household reach, and GAC ranks No. 75, according to Kagan World Media.

''I think the Opry will have a fair amount of impact. It's a name that's recognized, and that gives people a reason to call cable companies and ask for it. They needed something special that would draw attention.''

Wayne plans to leverage the Opry the way Comedy Central did the hit show South Park, and the way the Food Network capitalized on Emeril Lagasse's popular cooking show while Wayne was president there and an executive at one of its owners, the Providence Journal Co. Wayne joined Jones in 1997.

''Every network has a signature show that takes them to the next level,'' Wayne said. ''The main way to do that is to add event programming that is very promotable. We decided to stretch a little and get the Opry.''

So how much could carrying the Opry help GAC?

When it launched on CMT two years ago, Opry Live drew 2 million viewers, CMT said. Data from Nielsen Media Research indicate that Opry viewership was 744,000 during the third quarter of 2002 but went up to 781,000 during the third quarter of this year, which ended Sept. 21.

Opry 'not even in the top 10'

Colleen Fahey Rush, CMT's senior vice president of research, said the Opry was a less popular show than perceived.

''The most recent data, from the last full quarter, shows that the highest ratings have been for our original programming ? 100 Greatest Songs, 40 Greatest Women of Country, the Flameworthy Awards. The Opry was not even in the top 10,'' she said.

Unmacht said that CMT was clearly shooting for a younger audience than GAC, which Wayne said embraces the 25-54 audience that is ''the sweet spot for country music.''

''CMT is always showing young people in tight jeans, with the attitude,'' Unmacht said. ''Really, country's a 35-plus demographic. But advertisers think young, young, young.''

'A good partner'

When CMT's Opry contract came up with owner Gaylord Entertainment, GAC proffered a generous multiyear deal that includes airing the one-hour segment on primetime Saturdays, with five rebroadcasts weekly. It came at a good time: Gaylord and CMT were in dispute over several terms of the contract, including how frequently Opry Live would air.

''We felt like GAC is a good partner for us with a long-term view for country music,'' said Steve Buchanan, Gaylord's senior vice president of media and entertainment. ''We really see that there's an opportunity for the network to grow, and we feel the Opry can be a part of that.''

Wayne and Buchanan say they've gotten numerous calls and e-mails from viewers wanting to know how they can keep their Saturday night date with the Opry. They are told to call their cable provider and request GAC.

Gaylord also was attracted to potential marketing synergy with GAC owner Jones Media Networks, a provider of network radio and cable TV content. It is a subsidiary of Jones International, an Englewood, Colo.-based venture owned by Glenn R. Jones.

Jones' cable roots date back to 1967, when Jones formed Intercable, a system that reached 1.5 million households at its peak.

Jones, a country music fan, started GAC in 1995 to provide Intercable subscribers with the type of content he was already providing network radio. Other cable systems began requesting GAC, and Jones began distributing it. It wasn't the only foray into cable. Jones also owned Knowledge TV and the Product Information Network, which have since been sold, along with Intercable. GAC is the only cable network Jones owns.

Jones Media Networks' other main business is radio content. It doesn't own stations but programs more than 1,200 in various formats (more than 400 in country) and is a syndicator of music, news and talk radio programs, including the country show Lia and Bill Cody's Classic Country Weekend. Lia and Cody also are hosts of TV programs on GAC.

That provides millions of dollars of cross-promotion for GAC on as many as 700 stations, Wayne estimated, including markets where GAC is not yet available.

GAC comes to Nashville

GAC had been available on cable networks around Tennessee almost from the 1997 launch, but Nashville got it only last year, when cable provider Comcast added it. Recently Comcast moved GAC from Channel 67 on the channel lineup down to 31 ? right after CMT.

''I wouldn't say we're going after their audience as much as growing ours,'' Wayne said.

''Alongside CMT, people will have a choice of the two of us, just like there's more than one rock channel.''

Whether or not CMT and GAC are shooting for different audiences, there is a marked difference in programming. CMT has replaced video time with movies, specials and long-form shows. GAC doesn't run movies. And GAC features like Lorianne Crook's daily Celebrity Kitchen and Aaron Tippin's weekly Made in America are structured in two- or three-minute segments so videos can be inserted.

During the week of Sept. 22-28, CMT played 127 different videos for a total of 822 airings, according to Broadcast Data Systems. That same week, GAC played 388 different videos with 1,388 airings ? about three times the number of original song videos.

CMT's Rush said regardless of whether programming was a video show or documentary, ''we are making country music television shows that bring in great numbers. We keep growing, quarter to quarter.''

Those in the record business say the channels benefit the industry in different and complementary ways. CMT's in-depth pieces help raise artists' profiles, but labels also need videos played to introduce new music and justify the $75,000 to $125,000 it takes to produce them, said Fletcher Foster, senior vice president of marketing for Capitol Nashville.

The situation between the two big players is analogous to the early 1990s, when now-defunct The Nashville Network was the country lifestyle channel and CMT played more videos, said Jeff Walker, president of AristoMedia, which markets video clips to CMT and GAC.

''We had the benefit of having two country music cable channels, and the format flourished,'' he recalled. ''CMT was playing the GAC role. Now CMT is doing ? event shows like the (Nov. 15) Johnny Cash tribute concert, Inside Fame, Crossroads, Flameworthy Awards ? all these different appointment-type shows, whereas GAC is driven more toward music videos. It's a win-win for the format.''

GAC programming includes Cody's daily GAC Classic; the request show CRL; On the Edge of Country, featuring ''alt-country'' artists such as Pat Green and Lucinda Williams; and the GAC Top 20 Country Countdown.

Some are produced in Nashville, others around the country. In Nashville, GAC has an eight-person office on 16th Avenue near the record companies and studios. There are no plans to move to the Opryland facilities CMT vacated when it moved downtown last year.

Counting on new shows

GAC is also counting on new shows to stimulate audience demand. It launched about seven new shows this year, including Country Music Across America, a Nashville-produced news program. It plans to add concerts and airs its first awards show with the live broadcast of the Christian Country Music Association Awards from the Ryman Auditorium on Nov. 6, featuring George Jones and Buddy Jewell.

''At the end of the day they both care a lot for the music, but they have different visions,'' Walker said of the two big cable networks catering to country music fans.

''We live in a competitive world, and you have to counter-program ? establish your own identity and brand,'' he said, noting that Nashville supports three ''hot country'' radio stations.

''The big winner is the consumer if it encourages more programming.''

Jeanne Anne Naujeck writes about the entertainment business and can be reached at 259-8076 or jnaujeck@tennessean.com.

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