What’s With The Country Music Surge On Mainstream TV?

Inspired by this month’s Blog Rodeo on why the mainstream world has fallen for country music and with Season 4 of The Voice set to premiere tonight, I thought it would be interesting to explore the increased crossover between the country world and mainstream TV.

After all, it’s impossible to discuss the rise of country’s presence in the mainstream without considering the TV factor. The CMA Awards on ABC in November and the ACM Awards on CBS in April delivered more than 13.5 and 12 million viewers respectively in 2012 (and that was in a Superstorm Sandy-affected, day-change affected off-year for the CMAs), and FOX has tried with much less success to get in on the country music action with the American Country Awards (which attracted 5 million viewers in December 2012). ABC’s freshman show Nashville, a soap opera centered around the country music world seems like more of a media hit than a popular one (recent episodes have attracted between 5.5-6 million live viewers) but has been adding nearly 3 million viewers in the Live+7 Day viewing ratings. Freshman sitcom Malibu Country (starring Reba McEntire) just scored 7 million viewers for its first season finale.

Look beyond country-focused TV programming, and there’s an unmistakeable trend integrating country performers into mainstream programming too, especially on competitive reality shows. Though the trend predated him, Voice coach Blake Shelton is the most currently visible example. Now we also have Keith Urban sitting on the American Idol judges’ panel (see the latest video & recaps from the show here and here). On the contestant side, three of Idol‘s top 10 finalists this season identify with country music while the most recent winners of XFactor US and The Voice (Tate Stevens and Cassadee Pope) made their marks by covering country songs and are now signed to country labels. That’s two years after country singers Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina took the top two spots on AI’s tenth season.

And it goes beyond singing shows! The current season of Dancing with the Stars (latest recap with video here) features Idol and Ellen DeGeneres favorite Kellie Pickler plus Wynonna Judd. The current season of The Amazing Race (latest recap here) features 2/3 of the country group Stealing Angels (the group has disbanded but the two women continue to sing). Trace Adkins is now in his second season of Celebrity Apprentice (latest recap here), a show that John Rich has won. So what’s going on here?

On The Voice, Blake Shelton plays the proud hillbilly who has found great chemistry with pop/rock playboy Adam Levine, and Blake has converted a Twitter following he accumulated from his constant “drunk” tweets and inappropriate jokes into a passionate Voice voting base that has carried him to two consecutive wins. Kellie Pickler is a talk show favorite because of her quick wit and hilarious tendency to say whatever random thought comes into her head. Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood have earned consistent critical praise for their humor as cohosts of the CMAs. Keith Urban has established himself as the kind, articulate and quietly witty anchor to the AI judging panel. These stars all have different approaches (Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, and Keith Urban lean towards drier, more understated humor whereas Blake Shelton, Kellie Pickler, and Reba are more likely to put themselves out there) but they share a willingness to laugh at themselves.

In an era of outre, larger than life pop stars like Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Keith Urban’s fellow judge Nicki Minaj, and Blake’s currently on hiatus fellow judges Christina Aguilera and Cee Lo Green, the masses are more likely to find the glamorous girl or guy next door appeal in the down-home stylings of a country star, and it makes sense that mainstream shows would look to the country world to bring more of a neighborly appeal. Not only that, in practice, the country stars named have been able to bring the key element of television chemistry to their shows where it has otherwise been lacking (unless you think Randy Jackson would have been able to mediate between Mariah Carey and Nicki Minaj on his own).

Media Representation
The country world has its own set of dedicated media, including a network of blogs and websites associated with radio stations and the TV channels CMT and GAC, and its own set of events throughout the year that serve as media opportunities to expose mainstream projects to country audiences. You have Country Radio Seminar in late February/early March, in which artists, radio, and media converge on Nashville for a schmoozefest providing plenty of opportunity to discuss upcoming projects, the ACM Awards in early April that convert Las Vegas in a multi-day live country music party and once again provide media availability for many acts, CMA Fest in June which is a whole week of events, live music, and showcases for fans and media, and the CMA Awards in November, another multi-day industry/media centered set of events. The cross-promotional opportunities between the internet, TV, and radio are there in abundance.

Although the sheer volume of media can create a little bit of an echo chamber when it comes to press release coverage, these events provide live performances and fresh interview content that lend color and timeliness to media coverage. CMA Fest and ACM week in Vegas reinforce the connection between fans and country acts with opportunities for meet & greets and, of course, multi-act concerts. That can translate into the kind of committed fanbases that helped John Rich and Trace Adkins fundraise on Celebrity Apprentice, supported Team Blake on The Voice and are getting behind Kellie Pickler and Wynonna Judd on Dancing With The Stars. The television world, especially the reality television world, thrives on the constant whir of new developments that generate media coverage, and the busy schedule of events in the country world feeds nicely into that.

The Changing Profile Of The Country Fan
Contrary to what people may assume from the glut of beer/party/truck songs on country radio, a 2011 research from MRI and the Country Music Association, summarized by Billboard here, the typical country music fan isn’t necessarily the backwoods living, pick-up truck-driving, internet caveman that stereotypes would have one believe. Most significantly, the study pointed out:

One in two people with an income of $100,000-plus are country fans and one in three people who have professional or managerial jobs are country fans. One in four of the people who live in the top five DMA’s [Designated Metropolitan Areas] are country fans. Again, Fuson pointed out that this opens a lot of doors because there is a whole new market where country fans live.

With a growing urban audience for country music (now supported by country’s first terrestrial radio station in New York City in more than 10 years, according to Billboard), as well as the growing amount of Internet engagement displayed by country fans (also documented in that research), the increased integration of the country world into mainstream television is the logical next step.

What may feel like a country takeover on reality TV is actually just momentum reflecting increased recognition of consumer engagement in the country world. The major networks are scrambling to maintain mass audiences in the wake of increasingly potent cable competition (AMC’s The Walking Dead and Duck Dynasty have challenged and even topped their network competition in the adults 18-49 demo this year). When it comes to reality TV programming, that means covering all niches in the hopes of a larger aggregate. The country world is arguably the most developed niche when it comes to media and the kind of fan engagement reality TV producers are eager to encourage, while the profile of the typical country fan has converged with that of a typical consumer advertisers are eager to attract. Combine that with attractive personal attributes characterizing individual country stars and country stars in the making, and you have yourself a country wave that isn’t likely to recede anytime soon.

Check out video of country stars including Scotty McCreery talking about the mainstream embrace of country music via @JessicaNorthey:

See also, this month’s Blog Rodeo posts:

  • Urban Country News: “Why Country Music Is Like the Zombie Apocalypse“, “A Love Affair For The Ages”
    For The Country Record: “TV & Nashville: Its Merits & Implications For Country Music”
    FOCUS On The 615: “Mainstream Hasn’t Fallen In Love With Country Music…Just The Opposite”
    UKCountryMusic: “Is Country Music About To Be Mainstream In The UK?”
    Country Music Tattletale: “For The Love Of Country Music”
    Keepin’ It Country: “Everyone Loves Country Music”
    Country Music News Blog: “The Mainstream Has Fallen For Country And I Am The Mainstream”, “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”>
  • About Deb B 432 Articles
    Also known as Windmills, I cover country music news and live televised country events, in addition to recapping ABC's 'Nashville.' Additionally, I occasionally do long-form chart analysis that has been cited by Entertainment Weekly, Pitchfork, The Guardian, The New Republic, NPR, and more.