CMT Continues To Produce One Of The Best Awards Telecasts On Television
Maybe it’s time for someone to revive “Nashville Star,” the country singing competition series that ran on USA Network for five successful seasons before it was snatched up by NBC, where it endured grievous creative mishandling during a summer run and suffered a desultory demise. I say this because “Nashville Star” was often referred to as a country version of “American Idol,” and to judge from the crush of former “Idol” contestants on the CMT Music Awards earlier this week, it would seem that the country music audience can’t get enough of aspiring young hopefuls.
There has been a vital connection between “Idol” and country music since Josh Gracin made it to the top four in season two and then moved to Tennessee and began recording albums. The relationship was solidified when season four winner Carrie Underwood became a country music superstar. Since then, “Idol” contestants and winners have been turning up on the CMT Music Awards as often as Tim McGraw and Kenny Chesney. This informal yet influential relationship to the highest-rated broadcast series of the last decade is one of the many reasons why the annual CMT Music Awards telecast continues to be one of the most entertaining and exciting television events of the year.
Underwood was perhaps the brightest star at this year’s CMT Music Awards, winning two coveted Buckles and performing her hit “Good Girl.” But she was only one of eight “Idol” alums who had their moment in the CMT spotlight. Colton Dixon and Skylar Laine, fresh off their premature eliminations on the “Idol” season just passed; season six winner Jordin Sparks, and season five favorite Kellie Pickler were on hand to make introductions. Season ten winner Scotty McCreery (who was honored with the Breakthrough Video of the Year award), season ten runner-up Lauren Alaina and season nine contestant Casey James all appeared on the Nationwide Insurance stage, a coveted opportunity for up-and-comers to perform part of a song leading into commercial breaks throughout the telecast. Alaina also was the perky host of the Twitter Tracker segments that ran throughout the show, during which she gamely noted all the awards-related tweeting that was happening while encouraging people to continue with more of the same. These segments were sponsored by Verizon.
I have to say that the Nationwide Insurance stage, which has been a feature at the CMT Music Awards for five years, remains one of the smartest award-show sponsorship platforms in the business. It is a coveted, branded opportunity that new country artists aspire to and fans eagerly anticipate with the approach of every CMT Music Awards telecast. Appearing on that stage is an honor in itself, and the Nationwide moments, when taken together, almost become an event within an event. Nationwide also sponsors an award of its own -- the Nationwide Insurance On Your Side Award -- in which fans vote for their favorite new live artist. The informal presentation of this particular award (which was bestowed this year on Brantley Gilbert) is pretaped and runs during a commercial pod on the big show.
The “Idol” connection and the Nationwide Insurance stage are just two of the things I continue to admire about the annual CMT Music Awards, an event that is more like an all-star concert that promotes country music than yet another awards program. They may not be as big as the Grammy Awards, the Academy of Country Music Awards or the Country Music Association Awards, but they are every bit as entertaining, and sometimes more so, perhaps because they are big enough to be included in the same company as the others but small enough to be more intimate and personal, which usually leads to greater emotional connectivity.
Even when the action moves outside into downtown Nashville -- as it did last night for performance segments with Hank Williams Jr. and Brad Paisley and Eric Church -- the effect is that of being invited to a sensational local block party. I also like the fact that the winners almost always thank country radio. There’s the proof: Radio still matters, especially in country music, even if it is sometimes regarded as a dinosaur. Significantly, the winners also thank CMT for continuing to play music videos.
As much as I appreciate the relative intimacy of the CMT Music Awards, I could not get comfortable with watching the winners walk through what can only be called the Aisle of Fans as they made the trek from the VIP seats to the stage. In a word, it was creepy watching frantic fans of all ages reach out at them, desperate to touch a star. I have always found country music artists to be the most approachable and accommodating of all entertainers, and it was clear throughout the show that they weren’t above pressing lots of flesh before addressing the audience. But yuck -- who knows where all those hands had been? Following the leads of Nationwide and Verizon, perhaps Purell should consider sponsoring the Aisle of Fans during next year’s telecast.