June 5, 2012
After earning some pretty big stripes in radio, programming visionary Brian Philips decided to take a leap into "The Great Unknown" that was the fledging Country music video channel, CMT, over 10 years ago. As he notes below, the transition wasn't exactly smooth, but as CMT's growing ratings indicate, it has been increasingly successful. Now, with the latest-and-greatest CMT Awards show kicking off June 6th, Philips offers insight into his recipes for cable TV success ... and how Country music - and radio - remains a big part of the mix.
What made you decide to leave radio for the cable TV world - and has the segue been all that difficult?
No, I got lucky. After Viacom acquired CMT for the MTV Music Group in 2001, John Sykes asked me to consult CMT. I was living in Atlanta, working on the Q100 launch for Susquehanna. But the breakout success of our original Wolf in Dallas struck Sykes as an interesting story; he was curious, we talked. Soon I visited MTV headquarters. After one meeting, my adrenaline was surging. I walked down to the corner of 44th and Broadway, called Joel Katz on my cell -- "I've just found where I belong."
Remember, Susquehanna was a terrific radio company, and I loved my run there, so this was not an easy call. The segue to TV was survivable because Viacom surrounded me with great people. I was clueless about TV at the time, but they were patient; they backed me to the hilt. Since then, they've always enabled us to staff our Nashville, Santa Monica and New York offices with winners, all A+ students. Since 2001, we've grown from 36 million households to 92 million.
What kind of differences between radio and cable TV did you have to overcome?
Different mindset. In radio, a lone programmer can "hear" a new station in his head, in his imagination, and spontaneously bring it to life with just a little money and small circle of people. A handful of energetic people can quickly reinvent a station with new talent, fresh creative, new music. Rewrap the van! The fundamental idea for The Wolf/Dallas-Ft. Worth was born in a flash; I wrote it on a notepad on a car ride to DFW. At 99X/Atlanta, we were flying without instruments, building a pop/rock/alt station that had never existed before.
Television, by comparison, takes an army. CMT's programming is shaped by our EVP/Development, Jayson Dinsmore (formerly NBC), and his team in Santa Monica. SVP John Hamlin (formerly 60 Minutes) handles all of our Nashville production, including these "Crossroads" spectaculars and the CMT Awards. My old 99X friend, Leslie Fram, turned out to be the perfect for SVP/Music; she loves Nashville. Mary Beth Cunin came from Disney; she handles all program scheduling and acquisition ... an enormous job.
Press SVP Lisa Chader (from Comedy Central) tries to stop me from shooting off my stupid mouth in the press. Dee McLaughlin is SVP/Brand Strategy, Creative and Marketing; she comes from Virgin North America. Suzanne Norman is CMT's Business Operations and Strategy SVP. She is as buttoned-up as I am free-wheeling. She functions as the part of my brain that was lost somewhere along the way. Lucia Folk leads up our massive Public Affairs department; her work atones for the trouble we get into.
My brilliant Nashville assistants Leeanne Lisk and James Hunsberger supervise me. They keep track of the passes, sunglasses, iPhones, important papers and clothing that I leave all over the building ... and all over America.
CMT.com is overseen by Martin Clayton, who founded it 15 years ago. Research, social marketing and digital initiatives, like everything we do, live in Nashville with support from teams in N.Y.
The legendary Chet Flippo is our Editorial Director, one of the original Rolling Stone guys. On his wall, he has the cover from his 1978 Willie Nelson interview edition of RS!
Advertising Integration is a big deal in TV. That's SVP Anthony Barton's expertise; he supports our huge Integrated-and-Advertising Sales effort, which is N.Y.-based. Similarly, distribution on all platforms is masterminded by a team at Viacom.
So my job isn't exactly like being the GM of a radio station. It allows me to traverse both the business and creative worlds. It has taught me how to run a much larger team, because each person has specific knowledge that makes them the envy of the industry.
They teach me.
Who are your role models?
Van Toffler, Lorne Michaels and Irving Azoff.
You are also involved in the radio side, with CMT Radio Live With Cody Alan...
Yes, my bud from The Wolf/Dallas! CMT Radio has grown wildly ... a powerful extension of CMT. Cody's show is on 122 stations, with more on the way through our Cumulus syndication deal. It's not only profitable, but we see that CMT -- the linear TV channel -- has higher ratings in markets where Cody is on the air. Another great way to spread the brand and the music. I love having a functioning radio operation in the building; it feels close to my roots. Cody is a star.
Cody's studio is in our building in Nashville, and sometimes on my way out of the office at night, I'll stop by and check in with them, settle into the studio, and suddenly I'm back in the world I left behind. I can relive my PD life for a minute ... until Cody tells me to leave.
Are other radio projects in the works for CMT?
We have more radio products coming -- weekend specials, daily services and more. We'll grow to meet the needs of our stations.
Country radio perennially faces the challenge of how much new artist product to play, as well as when new music from established artists become less, shall we say, "contemporary." How does CMT balance the generation issue?
We want to be at the forefront of any new musical movement, to lead and innovate with good judgment, but also take risks and provoke reactions when we can. A show like "Crossroads" cross-pollinates the new with the old, and weaves new flavors and styles into our music. We're conscious of tradition even as we strive to introduce the next wave. Our audience is active 18-49 year-olds.
So how does one discern when a Country artist moves from the current "era" to a past one?
No two cases are alike. Whenever there's a "changing of the guard," the audience will give you a tremendous amount of guidance as their tastes evolve. I don't think it's up to TV or radio programmers to consciously try to push the genre in a direction of their choosing.
I look at Nielsen ratings every day at 3:30 and they tell me exactly what America was thinking the night before -- always humbling. I know programmers spend a lot of time doing the same thing, and they deal with 10 times more ratings analysis in the PPM world now then during my radio career.
Let the audience help you decide when its time to move an artist along. And we never write any artist off. One song can change everything. There's no substitute for talking directly to your audience via focus groups and panels. It's the greatest theatre in world. Is it sick that I love focus groups so much? I also love watching social and reading message boards; we all crave feedback every minute.
But how can the audience tell you they want new music or artists they haven't heard yet?
That's the gig. You feel trends and tremors, not just in the research, but through social media and direct interaction with your audience. They're talking ... they're consuming new music online. We just have to pay attention.
I love it when something in our world catches the attention of my peers at MTV and VH1 in New York. I'll hear, "What's the deal with this guy Eric Church? How BIG is Jason Aldean?" They're tapped in, and they know who is making waves beyond Country.
Much like the waves that Shania Twain, The Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift made, changing the landscape of Country music. It feels like we might be on the cusp of some seismic changes, exciting times in Nashville.
Let's talk award shows. On top of there being the Grammys, American Music and Billboard Music Award Shows, the CMT Awards also go up against the ACMs and the CMAs within the same music genre. Is there a constant effort on your part to outdo all the others?
We set out to throw one big kick-ass party. We're a little looser, a little riskier and generally louder. We work to bring in surprising characters from the larger culture who happen to like our music.
Our choice of Kid Rock as a host worked in 2010 and last year. Why Kid Rock? The answer is that Kid Rock may be from Detroit, but he has "Country" in his bones. He's got a Nashville home (when he's not passed out at Hank Jr.'s house), and plays and sings with all of our friends. Probably not a move any of the other awards shows have made, but it fit us perfectly and delivered monster ratings.
Are you ever concerned that the pop or movie star's appeal might alienate the more conservative Country music fans' sensibilities?
Stars outside of the narrowly-drawn lines bring in the mass audience. Our stars love being part of a larger cultural event. We don't like contrivance, but if we can create a genuine connection, we've earned new converts to our music.
But even on a national scale, aren't you concerned about too much pop/rock influence on what is still a Country music Awards show?
We are always surprised at the depth and breadth of the CMT audience's tastes. Maybe 20 years ago, it was easy to find Country music fans exclusively loyal to Country. Today, I defy you to find a fan under the age of 50 who listens exclusively to one kind of music. Look at their iTunes collection.
I learned awards shows from (MTV Music Group President) Van Toffler. If you set up expectations correctly, put the right people in the room -- hire the right writers, the freshest creative team and attract the right stars -- you set the atmosphere and the tone. Let the stars unwind and have a good time ... then the surprises, the big TV moments will take care of themselves.
Again, it goes back to audience knowledge; audiences today know if something is contrived, if it's being done for shock value or it's a rip-off. It's a challenge we rise to on an annual basis, reinventing the show. We want people to walk out of the 2012 CMT Music Awards believing this is the best party we've ever thrown.
Is it hard to accommodate all the artists who want to be on the show?
Yes! It's hard because there are always more worthy bands than can fit into a two-and-a-half-hour show, which from the viewers' point of view, is good stretch of entertainment. Three-hour shows seems a little long to me. Two-and-a-half hours put pressure on us to jam the music and keep the show moving.
Looking into CMT's other programming, for years MTV has been criticized by those on the label/music side for emphasizing reality shows and abdicating its efforts to break bands via music videos. Has CMT dealt with such sentiments -- and how do you respond to that?
Check your watch ... it's 2012. We, as the Music Group, seem to have moved past that kind of criticism. I don't see viewers resenting the fact that they can't see Men At Work or Duran Duran videos on MTV anymore. MTV is enjoying its most successful era ever! Snooki is helping to put my kids through college! Music videos are now consumed in a lot of different ways; people are plugged in, and our new platforms will deliver more music than ever before.
Look, we'll always remember the early days fondly, but the world has clearly mutated in the way consumers view music.
But with all that said, CMT still has more big music franchises than just about anybody on TV. "Crossroads," CMT Music Awards, Artists of the Year, Top 20, "CMT Insider," VJ- for-a-Day video blocks. Music will always be the backbone of the channel.
How has CMT capitalized on the reality show boom?
Our two biggest hits of all time both aired this year, back to back! The CMT audience exploded for these shows. "Bayou Billionaires" and "My Big Redneck Vacation." The first season of "Vacation" took a blue-collar family from Louisiana and sent them on summer vacation to the Hamptons. The next season premieres on Wednesday, June 6th, right after the Awards show. This time, we sent the same great family to England, put them up in a castle in near Manchester, and watched them wreak havoc across the English countryside.
"Bayou Billionaires" tells the story of a hard working family who discovered that their property was atop a huge natural gas deposit -- and suddenly they became instantly wealthy. The Dowden family is a fantastic group of people -- unspoiled, enjoying their newfound riches, yet grounded enough to take care of each other.
We're always on the lookout for people who are a bit loud and a bit crazy, but who also have real heart and humor in the way they interact with each other.
Is the CMT audience also enamored with families like the Kardashians?
CMT viewers aren't heavy viewers of this type of "reality" (or at least they tell us they're not.) Besides having extraordinary BS detectors, the CMT audience embraces genuine humans with heart and humor, even though reality characters tend, by nature, to be exaggerated, over-sized.
So sex doesn't sell on a CMT reality show...
Not sex for the sake of shock value. At the risk of sounding like Bill Clinton on a bad day, "It depends on what your meaning of the word 'sex' is." You could argue that our biggest artists are sexy. "Attractive" people are just that -- attractive to others, attractive to viewers. But I've got seven kids under the age of 13 ... and I like to be able to watch CMT, for the most part, with my family. Sex doesn't "sell" on CMT, but romance, heart, larger-than-life characters and great stories do.
CMT families are smart, grounded and tech-savvy. They value time spent watching TV. That's part of their family time. They'd be disappointed to see a salacious show on CMT.
So there won't be a "Housewives Of Nashville" on CMT any time soon?
No ... as tempting as that may be. I think we might have a few casting ideas ... I don't think the CMT audience has any appetite for these formulaic shows where "real" women break chairs over each other's heads in drunken, bleeped-out stupors. Viewers would reject it, and our advertisers wouldn't want to be in it. Cable is a terrific business, and we need premium advertisers
Advertisers love CMT because they know their spots won't get sideswiped by nasty content. This is a good environment for their products because we attract multiple generations of viewers to our shows. We want to mirror the appeal of a Country music stadium show -- attracting all ages. We don't want parents to fear their children will be scorched by some terrible thing that someone will say, or sing. This is not rock or pop. They'll hear solid music and see well-told stories from a bunch people they'd like to hang out with. It might get a little rowdy and wild at times, but its heart is always in the right place.
Watch the CMT Awards Wednesday night at 7p CT, 8p ET. We're going to launch Carrie Underwood out of a circus cannon. And give viewers a backstage glimpse of our luxurious "Willie Nelson CMT Awards Smoking Lounge."