Country Showdown

CMT, Great American Country duel for viewers

CMT brass were exuberant in January when the newly reconstituted Miss America Pageant posted all-time-high ratings for the country-music network. But, for upstart challenger Great American Country, the pageant's success was a chance to trumpet its claim as “the authentic country-music network.” GAC launched a trade campaign tweaking CMT's use of reality and general-entertainment programming like Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and the Dukes of Hazzard.

“Everything we do is focused on what the core country-music market is all about,” says GAC President Ed Hardy. “That's the biggest difference.”

Even if the cheeky marketing resonates, GAC has a long way to go to catch up to CMT, which has more than twice the distribution of GAC's 40 million homes. CMT also is growing, with significant ratings gains in its target 18-49 demo and an 8% ad-revenue jump in the first quarter, according to TNS Media Intelligence. Since GAC is an emerging network, comparative Nielsen and TNS figures aren't available.

But with Scripps Networks taking control of GAC in a $140 million acquisition less than two years ago, the network has a corporate backer with more muscle to take on Viacom-owned CMT.

CMT is adding more non-music programming, such as new hit Trick My Truck (a takeoff on MTV's Pimp My Ride), but network executives say GAC will not be able to “out-country” it. “Nothing will overwhelm the central premise: music,” says Brian Philips, CMT executive VP/general manager.

GAC counters that Nielsen data measuring music programming, ranging from videos to live performances, shows that it offers significantly more music than CMT. According to the figures provided by GAC, the Scripps network played 25,593 “spins” from Feb. 1 through mid July, versus 10,046 on CMT.

Country music's renewed popularity—it seems to ebb and flow—benefits both networks. In the first half of 2006, sales of country albums grew at a rate of 17.7% (to 36 million), the fastest growth rate of any genre, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

Madison Avenue now embraces country music, at least more so than in the past. The popularity of NASCAR has helped, says GAC VP of Sales Susan Leigh.

Neil Holt, her counterpart at CMT, agrees: “We used to run into some perception issues, almost exclusively at the agencies in New York City. Perceptions have changed dramatically.