CMT Trying Its Hand at Poker Series

Oct 25, 2004  •  Post A Comment

CMT: Country Music Television is bellying up to the poker table with an order of “Dead Man’s Hand,” a one-hour series in which celebrities play the ever-popular Texas Hold ‘Em.

In a format twist, the players will have a personal valuable at stake-a favorite Harley-Davidson or a treasured guitar, for example. John Irwin is the executive producer, and John Ferriter of the William Morris Agency brokered the deal.

The show is part of an effort at CMT, a division of Viacom that has been under the MTV Networks umbrella since 2000, to expand its slate of original series and specials beyond its music video foundation and broaden its appeal beyond its country base.

Formerly a CBS Cable-owned network, CMT was founded in 1983 and joined the MTV Networks after Viacom merged with CBS. Tom Freston, then chairman of MTV Networks, promised an “energized, souped-up” rebranding that included boosting subscribers and increasing promotion. In the past year, the network has focused on expanding its original programming of reality shows and specials as it has grown to 77 million subscribers.

Though the network would not comment on the new poker show, Brian Philips, executive VP and general manager of CMT, said the channel has 12 new projects in development.

“The goal is always to ramp up original series,” he said. “What we always hope is there will be a convergence of new original series and the country music would explode again-and this year it did.”

Mr. Philips is referring to the 11 percent increase in country music sales in 2004 due to a bevy of new artists such as Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich. CMT is also prepping a month-long Shania Twain salute in November featuring a special edition of CMT’s weekly magazine show “CMT Insider” and a “CMT Top 20 Countdown” co-hosted by the popular contemporary country singer.

The network is currently promoting “Outlaws,” a concert series that combines rebel figures in country music with rock artists such as Kid Rock and Metallica’s James Hetfield. In December, the network will televise a special featuring Willie Nelson and former President Jimmy Carter. Joining the poker show phenomenon would fit in with the network’s efforts to widen its appeal.

So far, CMT’s strategy appears to be paying off. The network’s third quarter was its fourth consecutive record-breaker in the 18 to 49 demographic. Its third-quarter prime-time audience averaged 313,000 total viewers, down slightly from 2003, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“Dead Man’s Hand” executive producer Mr. Irwin recently formed Irwin Entertainment after spending several years as VP of development and production for Lorne Michaels’ Broadway Video. His previous credits include “Bad Boys of Comedy” for Paramount Studios and “Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry” for HBO.

Mr. Irwin has also just been tapped as an executive producer for the half-hour scripted comedy “Midnightly News,” which is produced by Courteney Cox and David Arquette’s Coquette Productions. Fox has ordered a pilot of the show, a Fox spokesman said.

“It’s funny because I tend to be all about being specialized and there’s so many different genres I’m attracted to,” Mr. Irwin said. “To me a good project is a good project.”