Will the stars of Nashville be singing the blues by the end of the season? The freshman drama's critical acclaim and decent bump with time-shifted viewing was good enough for ABC to reward it with a full-season pickup, but inside the network, executives are wondering: Why aren't viewers watching? And what can be done to save the show beyond this season?
Nashville was the most anticipated new series of fall, topping Metacritic's survey of TV critics across the nation. TV Guide Magazine's own Matt Roush raved about the show's "sensationally entertaining medley of backstage rivalries, family and political shenanigans." Sounds good, right? ABC also focused much of its fall marketing campaign on the drama and launched it behind two original episodes of the comedy smash Modern Family.
Then came the ratings. Nashville averaged 8.9 million viewers for its October 10 premiere, and among the key demo of adults 18—49 it attracted just 3.5 million, down 15 percent from the premiere of Revenge a year ago in the same time slot. For the amount of hype and attention the show received, the premiere ratings were disappointing. By week five, Nashville had settled at around 6 million viewers — not the sign of a hit and a reminder that critics and viewers aren't always in harmony. "It's surprising to see the ratings drop off," says Brad Adgate, senior vice president/director of research for ad-buying firm Horizon Media.
Setting a show inside the world of country music seemed to be a smart move. ABC already had a tight relationship with the Country Music Association (which oversees the highly rated CMA Awards), and it was a CMA board member who originally pitched the idea of a country-tinged scripted show. Plus, Nashville's pedigree is first-rate, including screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), who created the show, and her husband, Oscar-winning musician T-Bone Burnett, who oversees the music. The cast is led by critics-fave Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights) and Heroes' Hayden Panettiere.
On paper, Nashville should be shooting up the Nielsen charts with a bullet, but there are a few key reasons it's not. (ABC and Nashville execs declined to comment.) From the beginning, ABC knew that the title was a problem. The word "Nashville" was destined to turn off a segment of viewers who wouldn't even sample the show, as thoughts of steel guitars, rhinestones and the Grand Ole Opry came to mind. "Country music is a little limiting," confirms one insider. (Never mind that Nashville is less about the songs and more about the relationships.) But a rigorous internal attempt to find a new name was unsuccessful, with most contenders (like Breaking In) sounding even more generic.
ABC execs realize now that Nashville posed a tougher sell than they expected and that their marketing campaign didn't explain the show to skeptical viewers. According to one rival network's data, on October 7 — right before the show's premiere — awareness of Nashville among adults under 50 was a strong 38 percent. But "intent to view" among those viewers aware of the show was only 34 percent.
Some point to NBC's similar struggle with Friday Night Lights, another critically acclaimed Britton series that never attracted a large audience. In that case, it's believed the show's high school football backdrop may have turned off some viewers. (The good news: NBC struck a landmark deal with DirecTV to keep Friday Night Lights going for several years.)
Many of the Nashville viewers not tuning in are part of the nation's largest TV market, New York City, where the premiere episode dropped 38 percent from its first to second half hour, compared with 19 percent nationally. Nashville also underperforms in markets like Los Angeles and San Francisco — and it hasn't done very well in Houston, either, where perhaps it isn't country enough.
Furthermore, the audience the show is drawing is rather narrow; according to Horizon's Adgate, 70 percent of the viewers for the November 7 episode were women. With so many TV options at 10pm (also a time when DVR usage is high), Nashville may be a victim of TV's new competitive reality.
Creatively, Nashville continues to earn strong reviews, but the show appears to still be feeling out whether it will be more of a soap, similar to other ABC series like Revenge and Grey's Anatomy, or if it will focus mostly on straight-ahead dramatic stories. "I thought I noticed them shift their promo focus once or twice prior to launch," says one rival network exec. "I thought they went from classy to really soapy. It suggests they knew they had an issue with appeal."
Going forward, ABC is thinking about moving the show to Sundays at 10/9c once 666 Park Avenue finishes its 13-episode run. (Another option, Thursdays at 8/7c, has been ruled out because it would air opposite Fox's American Idol come January. "You don't want to put it against a music show," says one network insider.)
ABC might also leave the show where it is and back it with a new marketing campaign aimed at non—country fans. Nashville attracts upscale viewers (it pulls in higher ratings in homes with annual incomes of more than $100,000), making it worth ABC's while to keep it on the air — for now. "When you have that kind of quality," says one exec, "you can't give it up right away."
Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!