The year 2016 already was was supposed to be a big for CMT, highlighted by a major push into original scripted series with comedy Still The King, starring Billy Ray Cyrus, which just launched to solid ratings, and 1950s Memphis drama Million Dollar Quartet, which premieres this fall. CMT’s scripted footprint grew dramatically overnight as the network recently picked up country music drama Nashville following its cancellation by ABC for a 22-episode fifth season.
Deadline spoke with CMT’s head of of development Jayson Dinsmore on the high-profile acquisition, the network’s plans for Nashville (a companion aftershow?), as well as its unscripted, documentary and music strategy in maintaining CMT’s brand of “optimism and positivity.” (Hint: music videos are not going anywhere.)
DEADLINE: Let’s start with Nashville. How did the deal came together and what was the reason behind the pickup decision?
DINSMORE: Every year there’s conjecture, would CMT pick it up if ABC canceled the show. Quite honestly, we looked at it and when it became available we jumped. It really is sort of the natural evolution of the channel. We wanted to move away from some of the lighter reality fare and we really wanted to create scripted projects that embraced music and that hopefully attract a broader audience. We were already headed down this path with two other scripted series and having Nashville come in as our third really completed the puzzle.
DEADLINE: Have you set a premiere date for Nashville yet?
DINSMORE: We have not. We just closed the deal so we’re very early in talks, but I have spoken with the showrunners, Marshall (Herskovitz) and Ed (Zwick), and studio, Lionsgate. Everybody is very excited and we’re working together. We’ll premiere the show when it makes sense for everyone involved.
DEADLINE: Have you decided how you will air the series? Will you stick to the cable model of two uninterrupted shorter runs because it’s 22 episodes, or is it going to be close to the way the show aired on ABC?
DINSMORE: We haven’t really decided that. I can honestly tell you that I don’t believe we will do a broadcast pattern where they go up for two episodes and then down for two. I think if and when we settle on the schedule there will be a long run of episodes so that the audience doesn’t have to wait to come back and forth. I think audiences who are so loyal, much like the Nashville fan base, I think they will appreciate that we’ve given them a lot of episodes in a row.
DEADLINE: Do we know which Nashville actors are coming back?
DINSMORE: Again, it’s really early. We’ve seen some really great press. Connie [Britton] was in Texas last week and said some very nice things about the show. When we announced that we picked it up we had several of the cast members onstage with us at CMA’s Fest last week. We had Chip [Esten]) and Clare [Bowen], so our expectation and our hope is that everyone will participate in this next cycle. Again, we’re just having those conversations now with the producers.
DEADLINE: On ABC, Nashville was a franchise with music specials, tours and other extensions. Are you planning to keep that and would the music quotient of the series increase now that it is on the country music-themed CMT?
DINSMORE: A lot of that falls on the shoulders of Lionsgate, the studio. What I can tell you is that we’re not going to impose ourselves on a show. The fan base has been very vocal about what they like and what they don’t like. We’re not going to turn this into the CMT version of Nashville. That being said, we have been looking at and thinking about additional ideas for shoulder programming to support the show. When you’re a cable channel you have unique opportunities that you don’t have at the broadcast level.
DEADLINE: Can you share any ideas that you are kicking around?
DINSMORE: I’ll tell you one of them. We’re thinking about doing an aftershow. Nothing’s set in stone but imagine if we did sort of a Talking Dead for Nashville where we had some of the cast, maybe some performances, maybe some fans come and talk about the show. We do it in the studio, sort of engage the audience and that loyal fan base on a deeper level. That’s something we can afford to do in cable that they probably don’t have the opportunity at broadcast.
DEADLINE: What are your expectations in terms of broadening the audience with the Nashville acquisition? How are you going to try to capitalize on potential new viewers who have never watched CMT?
DINSMORE: I’ll give you one quick example. When we announced that we picked up Nashville we knew the fans were super-loyal. We didn’t know they were as loyal as they are. As soon as we announced it, the fans reacted in such a huge, positive, goodwill way towards CMT that they actually started a Twitter campaign to support the premiere of Still The King three days later. Nashies for Still The King trended on Twitter. The sentiment was we’re thankful to CMT that they’ve picked up this show and they’ve listened to the fans that we’re going to mobilize and support everything they do. We were surprised and thankful as well at the same time.
DEADLINE: How does Nashville fit into CMT’s scripted strategy? Original scripted series is very hard to get into, it’s a very crowded field.
DINSMORE: Well, you’re right in saying that channels where the expectation is one thing trying to move into new areas of content is difficult. Super-proud of the fact that our first one out of the gate, which is Still The King, really connected and had two-and-a-half million viewers in its premiere. We’re excited about the ratings, so we’re hopeful that we’ll have a second cycle. I think the difference is that CMT has such a clear brand. So in some ways we have a head start in the expectation of what we would do and as we move into different genres. Quite honestly, we look for all types of programming that is somewhat rooted in music and arguably have strong storytelling and characters that are relatable, whether it’s an unscripted, scripted, or music and events or in our documentaries. I actually think they complement each other quite well, but because we have such a clear brand that’s connected to music you kind of have an expectation of where we would go regardless of genre.
DEADLINE: When are you going to make a renewal decision on Still The King?
DINSMORE: We’re talking right now to the producers. We’ve only aired once but we’re very excited. I would say this: You don’t go into these types of productions and spend this kind of money without an expectation that you’re going to get to a second cycle. We do subscribe to the belief that in such a crowded marketplace you need to allow shows the opportunity to find an audience over time. While we haven’t picked it up, I’d like to think that it’s a real possibility.
DEADLINE: What are your expectations for your first drama, Million Dollar Quartet?
DINSMORE: Million Dollar Quartet is really a premium cable television play. It’s inspired by the Broadway musical, though it is not a musical. In fact, we spent quite a bit of time trying to imagine a way where a show about the birth of rock and roll set in Memphis in the 1950s during a turbulent time of race relations, how could we make that appeal multi-generational. So we really turned it into a coming-of-age story. Our Elvis character, the actor who plays him, is actually 17 years old in real life. His girlfriend is 16 years old in real life. Then we peppered the cast with really charismatic and good-looking actors formerly of the WB and the CW. So we sort of raided their closet and brought Chad Michael Murray, Trevor Donovan over. We tried to position the show as: if our main characters weren’t Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ike Turner, BB King, would a younger audience connect to this coming-of-age story in the way that they did previously in the Dawson’s Creek and Gilmore Girls of the world?
DEADLINE: What are your scripted plans beyond Still The King, Million Dollar Quartet and Nashville?
DINSMORE: I think we have eight pilot scripts in various stages of development. We plan to shoot two pilots this summer. We hope to add another series into the mix by next summer or next fall and then hopefully continuing to add another scripted series as we build out our entire week of programming each year.
DEADLINE: You mentioned earlier that on the reality side you are moving away from lighter fare. What do you mean by that?
DINSMORE: It’s not that we’re moving away from lighter. I actually think a better description would be we’re moving towards things that have optimism and positivity and hopefully the opportunity to find repeatable franchises. We’ve launched a couple in the past year. We added I Love Kellie Pickler to our slate and it was the highest-rated premiere since 2012 and then highest-rated with women since 2008. She’s become sort of an ambassador for the channel. She’s so likeable and cute. Then we followed that up with the launch of The Dude Perfect Show produced by Rob Dyrdek. That show, for the very first time, brought many, many teens to the channel. In other words, we’re inviting new people to the channel and they’re coming to check us out.
DEADLINE: With I Love Kellie Pickler and The Dude Perfect Show doing well, have you found CMT’s sweet spot with the comedic reality genre?
DINSMORE: We’ve had a great deal of success with comedic reality. I think our audience appreciates that we don’t show a lot of violence or don’t go heavy and dark. I think they come to CMT to escape. So the shows that sort of feature that tone, whether it’s blue skies or whether it’s comedy, those are the ones that seem to connect. We definitely are not cynical. Sometimes we can be sarcastic but we don’t go dark and we don’t go cynical. We really do think that optimism and positivity are two key words that we endeavor to have in each of our series. With Kellie Pickler we got quite a bit of credit both critically and from the fan base that they liked that we didn’t show a ton of bickering between Kellie and her husband. They had a real relationship and they loved each other. I think that’s sort of the filter we go through. That’s what I would say.
DEADLINE: What about competition reality series? CMT once aired Next Superstar. Would you like to revisit the music competition genre?
DINSMORE: We’ve been asked that quite a bit as well. There are a couple of things. One is competition music is really well-served by broadcast television right now. The Voice, American Idol, even America’s Got Talent has quite a bit of music. They are exceptional productions so what I would hate to do more than anything is to produce a cable version of those shows and actually do a disservice. We are well-represented across all of those shows whether it’s Keith Urban on American Idol or Blake Shelton on The Voice, so no. We don’t actually think we’ll do a big, giant-arced competition series. Also, there’s just very little residual value to spend that much money and get so little return. It’s just not a business model that we’re interested in. That being said, we service music on our channel more than any other channel in television because music is actually the front door to everything that we do.
DEADLINE: What about music videos, will they remain a staple on the network as it evolves?
DINSMORE: I’m very proud of the fact that we still have music videos on air. If there’s one thing our longest fans of the channel ask for is that we play more music. So we’re trying to accommodate them by giving them different opportunities to listen to music and see music on our channel. Yes, our music hours remain. I think it’s about 25 percent of our schedule.
DEADLINE: Why did CMT decide to go into the documentary business?
DINSMORE: We started the documentary division three years ago to introduce more sophisticated storytelling to our audience to see how they would react. What we thought was true actually proved to be true. They loved it. We did a documentary on Johnny Cash. We did a documentary on the making of Urban Cowboy and the backstory behind the bar from the movie, Gilley’s. Those two were seen by 20 million viewers over multiple airings.
It took 18 months to get our first doc made. We had to convince the town that we were willing to go there and to actually pay and give them the resources they need in order to make a real film.
Then we followed that up with The Bandit, a documentary on the relationship between Burt Reynolds and his best friend Hal Needham, who was his stunt man and also the director of Smokey And The Bandit. It really turned out to be quite a love story. We submitted it to South by Southwest. We world premiered there and demand was so great that they moved us from a 300-seat theater to a 3,000-seat theater and had to schedule three showings to meet the demand.
Our latest documentary is called Chicken People. It is basically best in show for folks who raise show chickens. It’s very heartfelt. This is going to get a little deep, but you’ll find that their relationships to their chickens are actually a metaphor for some social anxiety they’ve had from their childhood. It’s going to get a theatrical release in New York and L.A. later this summer. We’re very proud of what we’ve been able to do with our docs team so quickly.