CMT Music Awards: A Striking Showcase For Talent And Sponsors Alike

Every year at this time I say the same thing: The annual CMT Music Awards telecast is one of the best of its kind, and in some ways the best music awards presentation of all. Last night’s production proved me right once again.

The primary reason for my enthusiasm is that the show literally pulses not only with the sounds of contemporary country music, but with the energy of Nashville itself -- the city where CMT has its headquarters and from which its awards are always televised. Other country music awards shows are often produced in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, partly because those cities offer larger mega-venues in which to stage such events. But that is done at the expense of atmosphere, a key component in the emotional connection people have to country music. CMT is single-minded in its embrace of Nashville, its residents, the fans who flock there and/or support it from afar and the business of country music overall.

Furthermore, the city’s Bridgestone Arena -- home to most CMT Music Awards telecasts -- is just the right size for a program that showcases country music and its fans; it doesn't eclipse or dwarf them in any way. Also, the Bridgestone is located right on the upper end of Lower Broadway, the home of Tootsie’s, The Stage and all those other legendary bars and honky-tonks where so many future country superstars start out.

Wisely, the producers of the CMT Music Awards stage several performances outside the Bridgestone (this year including Lady Antebellum and Jake Owen), offering viewers at home a chance to appreciate the excitement of that one-of-a-kind area. In fact, I felt the highlight of last night’s show was Blake Shelton’s performance of “Boys ‘Round Here” on a stage in front of the Bridgestone that offered as a backdrop a spectacular neon-bathed view of Lower Broadway after dark. At the conclusion of Shelton’s number there were fireworks over the Cumberland River in the distance.

If that sequence didn’t put millions of viewers in the mood to visit Nashville one day soon, I’m not sure what would.

Shelton’s performance was presented by Pepsi -- in fact, the action on Broadway was referred to as the Pepsi Block Party. It was part of Pepsi’s promotional effort this week in Nashville during the annual CMA Music Festival. (Shelton performed another song, “My Eyes,” on the Pepsi stage that was not part of the CMT telecast. It’s available on Pepsi Pulse and on CMT.com.)

The relative intimacy of the CMT Music Awards works to the advantage of its sponsors, which tend to be more visible and perhaps establish stronger emotional connections with viewers on a more modest and tightly focused awards show than they might when participating in others. Verizon’s Twitter tracker segments -- hosted by “The Voice” winner Cassadee Pope, who won the Breakthrough Video of the Year award last night for “Wasting All These Tears” -- stood out without getting lost in the waves of mindless tweets that are washing over so much of television these days. It was hard not to notice that Jake Owen’s performance of “Beachin’” outside the Bridgestone was billed as The KIA Outdoor Performance.

But as always, the smartest and most creative sponsorship came from Nationwide Insurance with its presentations leading into every commercial break of performances by up-and-coming country artists on a special stage inside the Bridgestone. This was the seventh consecutive year that the Nationwide Insurance Stage was part of the CMT Music Awards. It’s a component of the show I look forward to every year, so much so that I would miss it if it were discontinued. It may be the best sponsorship opportunity available on any awards show telecast anywhere. (I think another advertiser would be wise to gobble up that prime real estate and re-brand it if Nationwide ever decides to give it up, not that I imagine that happening.) The up and comers featured last night included Danielle Bradbery, Tyler Farr, Thomas Rhett, Cole Swindell, Dan + Shay, David Nail and Brett Eldredge.

Another thing I enjoy about the CMT Music Awards is the involvement of so many personalities from reality competition shows. Last night’s event was a big one for “American Idol” (Carrie Underwood was prominent throughout and won the Video of the Year award for “See You Again,” while Keith Urban performed “Cop Car” from a set made to resemble the legendary Bluebird Café), “The Voice” (because of Cassadee Pope’s big win, which could help change the perception that “the Voice” has never produced a “star”; that show-stopping outdoor performance by her “Voice” mentor Blake Shelton, and Shelton’s win for Male Video of the Year for “Doin’ What She Likes”) and the much-missed “Nashville Star” (Miranda Lambert, a “Star” contestant in its first season, won the award for Female Video of the Year for “Automatic”; also, Lambert and Underwood closed the show with a performance of “Somethin’ Bad”).

Every time I watch Lambert crush another song or win another award I can’t help but wonder why one of the broadcast or basic cable networks doesn’t revive “Nashville Star.” The countless connections between winners and contestants on “American Idol” and “The Voice” to the Music City would seem to suggest that country music has grown so much in recent years that its fan base would support the show.

If I have one issue with the CMT Music Awards it’s the choice once again of Kristen Bell as host. (This year she went solo, without a co-host.) She does a perfectly fine job with the task at hand, and she brings a lot of energy to the proceedings, but I simply do not associate her with country music in any way. Given the extent to which CMT embraces everything about the business of country music with its awards, the choice of someone not connected to it seems strange to me. As I watched the telecast last night I couldn’t help but fantasize about Connie Britton or Hayden Panetierre hosting the show, or the amazing Reba McEntire. But this is a minor complaint about an event that offers so much to enjoy.

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