Why CMT Picked Up Nashville From ABC, and When the Show Could Debut

Network president explains big swing

CMT president Brian Philips wasn't kidding when he told Adweek in March prior to his network's upfront presentation that the country-themed network's move into scripted series this year for the first time represented "a quantum leap."

At that point, he was referring only to Still the King (starring Billy Ray Cyrus as a washed-up, one-hit wonder who discovers he has a 15-year-old daughter), which debuted last week, and Million Dollar Quartet (inspired by the 2010 Broadway musical set in 1950s Memphis), which will air in November.

But CMT's biggest scripted splash came Friday when the network announced it had picked up the Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere drama, Nashville, which was canceled by ABC in May. CMT will air all 22 episodes of Nashville's fifth season, while Hulu will be the show's exclusive streaming partner, making all episodes available for streaming the day after they air on CMT.

Lionsgate, which produces Nashville along with ABC Studios and Opry Entertainment, had been aggressively searching for a new home and found it in CMT, which is also based in Nashville. But the deal also wouldn't have happened without Hulu, which had SVOD rights to the show's previous four seasons and agreed to renew its streaming agreement to make the deal happen. (Hulu has exclusive streaming rights, but CMT will be able to offer the show on VOD.)

It's a huge swing for CMT, which is hoping to attract a good chunk of the 4.2 million viewers that watched Nashville in live-plus-same-day ratings last season on ABC (and averaged 0.96 in the 18-49 demo). CMT and Lionsgate said the show had more than 8 million weekly viewers across all platforms. In contrast, Still the King was CMT's highest original premiere ever with 2.2 million viewers (and a 0.97 rating) across CMT, TV Land and Nick at Nite.

"It's been a good week," said Philips, who spoke with Adweek about how the deal happened and why the Season 5 premiere might air on more than one Viacom network.

Adweek: What prompted CMT's push into scripted this year even before Nashville?
Brian Philips: It was really a natural evolution of the channel. As we moved away from some of our lighter reality fare, we wanted to create scripted that embraced music, that attracted a broader audience. We already had major pieces in motion with both Still the King and Million Dollar Quartet. To have Nashville come along and complete the puzzle in such a timely way is just a real gift.

How did this Nashville deal come together? There had been questions about Nashville's future on ABC for many months.
In spite of its explosive growth, Nashville the city is still a small town. I think we always saw ourselves in that show a little bit, literally and figuratively. We saw a lot of people we knew in the show. As a result, we always had our eye on it. Every year, there would be some conjecture about whether or not it might become available, and when it was available, the fans took over. In my entire career, I've not seen anything like the seismic groundswell that hit us from every direction about "CMT needs to save Nashville." As we were working out the details and the deal, in the back of my mind, aside from the great business implications of having a wonderful, proven show with a great following, I was like, "I don't want to disappoint these people!" I couldn't pick up my dry cleaning in Nashville without somebody coming up and saying, "What's going to happen with Nashville? Are you going to do it or not? What's the holdup?" We always knew that if it became available, we wanted to be in play to get it. And Lionsgate made that possible, as did Hulu.

If the show had been available a year ago, before your expansion into scripted, would you have made the same play for it?
The question centers around whether or not a year ago we would have built up this scripted infrastructure for promotion and marketing and production and press and all the things that accompany Still the King and Million Dollar Quartet. It would have been harder to know a year ago if we were able to make that leap, but now we're much more comfortable working with scripted.

This has a broadcast show's budget and license fee. Hulu is a big part of this deal, but what else did you have to do to make the finances work out so this made sense for your head and your heart?
It took great advice from a lot of different wings of this company. Not the least of which is the very top of [Viacom] Kids and Family [Group] and ad sales. Any place you look in this company, you can find people who can think with their heads and hearts simultaneously and see the benefits of the brand and see the long-term benefit relative to the short term. So it involved a lot of quick consultation with our company and with my senior team. "Can we take this on? Are we ready for this?" I'll give our larger company credit for being flexible and nimble when we thought we wanted and needed something that could change CMT's future, and everything came together really quickly with very little friction.

Much of the cast is in long-term deals, but did you check with them to see if they were still on board with the move to CMT?
Yeah. Obviously, we did that diligence, but last year on CMT's Artists of the Year Awards, we gave a special honor to the cast and crew and creators of Nashville for all they've done for our town and for our culture. Chip Esten [who plays Deacon] is a constant go-to guy for CMT. He's always there when you need him for something. We have great relations with the talent on the show, including the people who came out and made the announcement with us on Friday: Chris Carmack [who plays Will] and Clare Bowen [who plays Scarlett] along with [Esten]. We didn't worry much because frankly some of those people were behind the "Save Nashville" movement as well. And I think that they were very pleased by the outcome of CMT being the new home for the show.

How about Connie Britton?
She said some great things on Entertainment Tonight down in Texas. Although she wasn't here the day of announcement, she was very positive in her remarks.

Is it safe to say we'll see a big marketing push behind the show ahead of its CMT debut?
Yes, that is safe to say.

Any idea when Season 5 will premiere?
It's still a work in progress. The writers' room is up, the showrunners are in place [Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, executive producers of My So-Called Life and Thirtysomething], and my sense is that they can more or less deliver at will. It could be fall; it could be a little bit later. We don't know. We're in the earliest of talks right now. We feel like the Nashville machine is gearing up, and we'll develop a plan for the rollout of these 22 new episodes that makes the most sense for everybody.

The CMT Awards and the Still the King premiere aired across multiple Viacom networks. Is that something you're considering for Nashville as well?
Yeah, I think so. We always look to our sister nets, those that are compatible or can be additive with shows like this. They're a huge help. The power of this Kids and Family Group is enormous. They're a huge help with awards, they're a huge help launching Still the King, and I can imagine the same for everything we do, including Nashville.

Will CMT have a bigger presence on the show this season?
We're not going to impose ourselves on the show, if that's what anybody's worried about. You're not going to be seeing egregious storylines set inside the executive suites of CMT I don't think. The writers are dedicated to making the stories pop, and it's whatever they come up with. For what it's worth, half of our executives were already on the ABC version of the show, much to my surprise sometimes when I was watching it! So, it's a small town, and a lot of our people have already touched the show one way or another over the years. Whatever the writers feel is the most organic way to work in the interesting facets of Nashville that have made this show so popular, we're with them.

What's it like having this show added to your arsenal during Viacom's upfront talks?
CMT is in a really good position for the upfront, clearly investing even more than we really imagined in original content, scripted, as well as big music franchises. And Nashville ices the cake with its passionate fanbase that we know will come back for Season 5 on CMT. So we're in the best possible position.

Anything else to add about Nashville?
As sexy and surprising as the great fan story that Nashville is, and as important as it will be to CMT's growth and the spread of CMT to a broader audience, I would like to reiterate that a huge amount of creativity, time, thought and money went into our investment in Still the King, which debuted really strongly for us, and Million Dollar Quartet, which I'm immensely proud of and think our audience will love. It's a family of great scripted shows and music events. I never want to be in the place where we're only known for one thing. We have a lot on our air, and we're not going to be a one-note network that's only about Nashville the TV show.