NBC hitches on to country bandwagon


More than 20 years ago CBS unceremoniously booted the cornball country music variety show "Hee Haw" off the network because it was too square for an increasingly sophisticated audience.

Now, well, shucks, it looks as if the hoedown has come full circle.

Strapped by abysmal Sunday evening ratings and intrigued by the rapid growth of a new country music audience, NBC has rolled the dice and decided country is cool again. Or hot, that is.

Enter "Hot Country Nights" (8 p.m., Channel 2), Hollywood's high-tech version of the Sunday-night, after-dinner, porch-swing sing-along.

It's got a smoke-belching stage, banks of laser lights knifing every-which-way through the studio, and a smooth network announcer intoning: "From HOLLYwood, It's 'HOTTTTTT Country Nights' . . ."

It's slick, it's intelligent: Call it the anti-'Hee Haw.' It's TV's most ambitious attempt yet to catch on to the mainstreaming of country music.

"We made ourselves a promise when we started this," said Rick Ludwin, NBC's senior vice president for specials, variety programs and late night. "We wouldn't see any bales of hay, and we wouldn't see any wagon wheels."

Gene Weed, vice president of television at Dick Clark Enterprises, who produces and directs "Hot Country Nights," said the effort has been to bring a " '90s look" to country music.

Some of the acts to appear so far include some of the hottest new names in country music, including Clint Black, Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis, the Judds, K. T. Oslin, Buck Owens, Willie Nelson, Vince Gill, Alabama, Kathy Mattea, Alan Jackson and the Gatlin Brothers.

"George Strait is booked for the second set [of programs]. So is Reba [McEntire], and we're working to get Garth Brooks," Mr. Weed said.

"We've been pushing NBC and CBS to do something like this for a long time," said Mr. Weed, who has produced the Academy of Country Music awards show since it's inception in the mid-'70s.

NBC has aired the country music awards show for the past 10 years -- and therein lies the genesis of "Hot Country Nights."

"We've all seen this new generation of country performers come forward on that show; Reba, George [Strait], Clint Black and others," Mr. Ludwin said.

But it's ratings that move network mountains. So when country's rising star was reflected in the country awards show ratings the past couple of years, the network took notice. Then, in September, Mr. Ludwin and some other executives went to Dallas to tape a two-night stand at Reunion Arena by Garth Brooks, country's reigning superstar, to be aired as a one-hour special Jan. 17.

"I have never heard an audience react the way this audience reacted to Garth," Mr. Ludwin said. "It was like Elvis was back. And as I looked around at the crowd, there were teen-agers, and 20-, 30-, 40-, 50- and even 60-year-olds. It was quite a cross section."

Such demographics can set a network executive's head spinning.

"It's no secret we were underperforming" on Sunday nights, Mr. Ludwin said. "So in early October, we decided to go ahead with it, and we were on the air Nov. 24. It's the fastest track I've ever seen for something going from an idea in someone's head to on the air."

So far, the results have been encouraging. NBC has renewed the program for an additional six shows.

"Hot Country Nights" is averaging a 14 share (that's the share of the television audience tuning in) over the first five weeks of programming, compared to a dismal nine share for the time slot previously.

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