Four months after being acquired by Scripps Networks, Great American Country is getting a schedule makeover.
The move is the first step in plans to refurbish the country music channel under its new management, led by Scripps Senior VP Ed Hardy and Sarah Trahern, VP of programming.
Scripps also is hiring new staffers in production, ad sales and creative services. New studios are being outfitted, and editing equipment is being bought. Scripps is contemplating a name change for the network and plans to move the network’s headquarters from Denver to Nashville.
“One of the biggest single weaknesses that GAC had is they didn’t invest any money in the infrastructure over time. It was just kind of thrown together,” Mr. Hardy said. “We knew we were going to have to invest in capital, and also that it would take eight, nine, 10 months to actually get it fully where we want it to be in terms of the production values.
“There’s not going to be big, big programming additions until that’s done. Next year will be the bigger year for marketing and investing significantly more money in programming.”
GAC, acquired from Jones Media Networks for $140 million, is one of the few cable networks to go a decade without making a profit, according to Derek Baine, an analyst at Kagan Research.
Kagan estimates that GAC lost $8 million in 2004 on revenues of $12 million. That loss should be almost halved this year, Kagan projects, and a $4.5 million profit is expected in 2007 after a spot of red ink in 2006.
Before its acquisition by Scripps, GAC struck a carriage deal with DirecTV that added 10 million subscribers last year. Now with 37 million subscribers, it is still behind Viacom’s country music cable network CMT, which has 77 million subscribers.
“Scripps actually has a lot of leverage now with a robust VOD offering and nice demand for their new channels DIY and Fine Living,” Mr. Baine said. “We are projecting GAC can get to a 35 percent margin by 2009 under Scripps.”
GAC’s new schedule goes into effect April 11. The object of the revamp is to better organize prime time, set up distinctive weekend programming and make room for specials hosted by country music personalities.
The network’s new 8-11 p.m. (ET) prime-time block (repeating at 11 p.m. ET to put it in prime time on the West Coast) will be anchored by “Country Request Line” Monday through Friday at 8 p.m. “CRL” currently runs at 9 p.m.
In the near future, “I think `CRL’ will probably have a new name and a new focus,” Ms. Trahern said. “The things that work really well are our artist interviews and their performances,” she said, which will be easier to do in the new studio.
Monday and Friday, a 90-minute music video block will air at 9. Those blocks likely will be branded “Video Prime” or “Prime Video,” she said. Some blocks may be hosted by country talent and include performance segments.
On Tuesday a rerun of the weekend’s “Opry Live” will air, followed by “Country Music Across America,” the network’s country music version of “Entertainment Tonight.”
“Top 20 Countdown,” a two-hour show, runs at 9 p.m. Wednesday. The show had been on three days in prime, which Ms. Trahern felt was too much.
On Thursday, “Country Music Across America” airs at 9 p.m., followed by a one-hour block of music videos.
Every night except Wednesday, “Edge of Country,” a show featuring music outside the country mainstream from bluegrass to Patty Griffin, runs at 10:30 p.m. Currently shot in Denver, it will move to Nashville, Tenn., where host Kylie Harris will be able to accommodate guests and performance segments.
Leaving prime time is “GAC Classic,” which had aired four nights a week and will move to Sunday morning to anchor a weekend classic block. The Oak Ridge Boys recently shot interviews for the show.
“We get a lot of viewer mail on `Classic’ and … we play a broader array of videos than our competitive network,” Mr. Hardy said. After the schedule change, the network’s mix of video will include a few more classics, “as opposed to having the big blocks of classics,” he said. “We wanted to make it more of a destination, appointment-viewing type show for those people who are really the hard-core classic fans, and yet give enough of a music mix to satisfy the viewer who wants to hear the classics interspersed with the current music.”
The weekend is also when the network’s strongest show, “Grand Ole Opry Live,” airs. GAC plans to take advantage of that lead-in by moving the premiere airing of new episodes of “Country Music Across America.” “We’re putting that after the `Opry’ on Saturday night so fans of young artists or contemporary artists can see them perform live on the `Opry’ and then immediately afterwards get that update on what’s happening in the business,” Ms. Trahern said.
Quality a Goal
With a new schedule in place, Ms. Trahern, a veteran of TNN (now Spike TV) and CMT who joined GAC from Scripps’ Shop At Home, said the network will focus on production quality.
“We’ll make a lot more headway when we get into new studios,” she said. “Things that are shot right now one-camera will be multicamera shoots. Right now we have one person writing promos, editing promos and running camera on our shows.”
Under Jones, the network was based in Denver. But all of GAC’s operations will move to Nashville in July, said Mr. Hardy, a Scripps TV station veteran who was in the radio industry before returning to the company.
The network is looking for a permanent location on Nashville’s Music Row, but until then it will use temporary space in a local production facility. “That is really going to help us freshen the look. We had very limited studio capacity in the GAC facility we inherited,” he said.
Once the production quality of the shows starts improving, “We can bring them all together with a new look and feel later in the summer,” Ms. Trahern said. “One of the things Ed and I are charged with is creating a network that has a consistent look and feel throughout the day.”
Mr. Hardy is looking forward to improving the network’s on-air promotion. “On HGTV and Food and some of our other networks they’re always selling what’s coming up next, and GAC didn’t do a very effective job of that because of the production limitations they had. That’s a big goal of ours in the near future.”
“One of the things we’re finding from talking to viewers is that they still want a lot of music-based programming, not a lot of reality stuff. So when we do go out into long form it will still be focused on the artist the music, the songwriters and the songs,” Mr. Hardy said. “We’re in the process of doing some fairly extensive market research, and so while that’s going on we don’t just want to fly by the seat of our pants and put a new show in development. So we’re using input from the research we’re getting to develop the new shows and the direction we’re going to go to some degree.”