At a time when branding and identity are crucial to the success of television networks, is it wise for one to put together a programming slate that suggests a bit of a split personality? As CMT demonstrated at its 2014 upfront presentation, the answer may be a resounding “yes” if both personalities seem perfectly suited to its audience.
Such was the case with much of the new programming the network revealed yesterday for advertisers and members of the press in a mid-day event at The TimesCenter in New York City. Many of the new series and specials set to debut on CMT throughout 2014 go right to the heart of country music -- especially a string of upcoming documentaries that will showcase such legends as Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell -- and in a doc titled “They Called Us Outlaws,” several original country bad boys including Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Jerry Jeff Walker.
These productions have been developed by CMT’s new News and Docs division, which also has in its pipeline “Promiseland,” a four-hour mini-series about American farmers from producer Ridley Scott and “Freedom: The Documentary,” a 90-minute film from modern documentary master Morgan Spurlock that examines the idea of independence in America and whether or not it still exists.
Contemporary country stars will also get the documentary treatment in “Inside Fame,” a series of one-hour specials that will focus on individual artists, duos or groups. Florida Georgia Line and Hunter Hayes will be among the first to be featured. CMT also announced that its next edition of “Crossroads” will feature Katy Perry and Kacey Musgraves. The Perry/Musgraves pairing will mark the 50th edition of this outstanding CMT franchise.
Moving away from music to other areas of interest for the CMT audience, the network announced a number of new series that might be described as deeply emotional, profoundly physical and decidedly different from the network’s signature original programming, which currently includes the “Jersey Shore”-style reality series “Party Down South” (the highest-rated and youngest-skewing series in the network’s history), “The Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders: Making the Team,” “Dog and Beth: On the Hunt,” “Swamp Pawn” and “My Big Redneck Family.”
Those shows might be described as lightweight, easy escapism -- terms that won’t necessarily apply to the new batch of series CMT will debut in the months ahead. They include “Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Ranch,” in which eight elite male and female athletes compete in what the network is calling “the most grueling competition series ever”; “My Dysfunctional Family,” in which frustrated parents with troubled teenagers call on a no-nonsense, professional “family fixer” to help them work out their problems, with powerful results; and “Death Valley,” a series that follows the lives of people who exist completely off the grid in one of the most hostile territories in North America.
“Ranch” should appeal to anyone who is drawn toward bone-crunching action shows, and “Family” should draw in the same audience that made A&E’s “Intervention” a huge success. To form an admittedly premature conclusion based only on clips screened during the presentation, “Death Valley” looks utterly unique, potentially fascinating and maybe a bit disturbing.
“It’s a new world today,” CMT president Brian Philips declared in his opening remarks. Watching clips from these new shows, it was clear he wasn’t kidding. I have followed CMT’s programming for many years and cannot recall so much of it being as hard-edged as the new series previewed yesterday.
“Our characters may strike you as a little rough around the edges, but they will win you over,” Philips asserted. Given the rising popularity of edgy programming on almost every network that assertion will in all likelihood prove accurate.
Still, country music remains the heart of CMT -- a fact made entertainingly clear when the network closed its presentation with a performance by Lady Antebellum, one of the top acts in country music today. After a three-song set, which included “Downtown,” “Need You Now” and a merge of the group’s hit “Golden” with Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” every advertising executive in the room was on his or her feet loudly cheering and wildly applauding. Many of them undoubtedly hope to travel in June to Nashville, where CMT is based, to attend the annual CMT Music Awards, still one of the most exciting and enjoyable of all awards shows.