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?