Prime-time television is about to be visited by a fourth major annual country music awards show: the American Country Awards, which will be broadcast for the first time Monday night from the MGM Grand in Las Vegas.
Welcome to country's own version of alphabet soup. The ACAs are of course not to be confused with the ACMs, which are held at the very same Vegas venue, albeit in the spring—or the CMAs, or the CMTs, or the all-genre AMAs (seen on TV just a week prior), or CMT's Artists of the Year show (telecast a scant three days before this show).
Some might call it overkill. But the show's producers can offer a list of reasons why the ACAs have come into existence, and why in December, and why in Vegas, among other questions being begged. We talked with executive producer Fletcher Foster to pin down a few factors that might set the ACAs apart from the rest of the cavalcade of country kudocasts.
1. Fox wants in on that Nashville action. "They've always wanted to get into the country music awards branding like ABC and CBS have," says Foster. "It really came about from Fox's relationship with American Idol and a lot of the country artists that have come out of that either as winners or runners-up. And last year, they had the Carrie Underwood Christmas special the first Monday in December, and that was a ratings bonanza for them. That's really when things got green-lit a lot quicker."
2. The ACAs effectively replace a defunct awards show. The Billboard Music Awards used to take place around this same time in December in Vegas, till that telecast got the boot a few years ago. This new show comes from the same production company, Bob Bain Productions. "He was one of the first guys to bring these kind of unconventional, just fun awards shows to TV, and to Vegas," says Foster.
3. It's rodeo (and NASCAR) time in Vegas. The National Finals Rodeo takes place in Sin City every year around this time. Guess who'll make up much of the live audience for the ACAs? "We looked at the correlation of those fans that are going to be in town," says Foster. "The rodeo is at the Thomas Mack Center, and it's sold out for 10 days straight. There are a lot of country artists that traditionally come in for that and do shows at the casinos; it's the last dates that a lot of country artists do before they're off for the rest of the year. Also, the show is three days after the NASCAR banquet, and there are a lot of fans and drivers that will be part of the show."
4. Coming right after the CMA Awards has its benefits. Foster says that coming less than a month after country's most venerable awards shows is a mixed bag. "In some ways, it's been a challenge, and in some ways, it's been a luxury." Plenty of superstars don't want to do the less recognized show right after doing the bigger one. But better to come right after than right before, when it comes to booking performances, as the CMAs would almost certainly push their weight around if anyone did a competing show just prior to theirs. The positive is that the ACAs can ride in the tailwinds of the CMAs on certain acts who've just heated up. "We booked Blake Shelton two months ago, but he just came out as the CMA male vocalist of the year"—an upset that got a lot of media attention. "So we're getting the benefit of his first live performance after that." Shelton will open the telecast.
5. Go west, young male artist. Look over the list of nominees and you'll see a lot of names that rarely come up at the CMAs, especially younger male singers like Luke Bryan, Easton Corbin, Jerrod Nieman, Josh Turner, Joe Nichols, and Billy Currington. "And," says Foster, "all of those artists you just mentioned except Billy are going to be on the show in some way or form, and most of them are going to be performances."
6. Rednecks aren't outre at the AMAs. When I suggested that the ACAs seem to favor a certain type of roughneck more the other country awards shows, Foster wasn't taking that bait. But looking at the cast for the telecast, it's clear this show is willing to put a certain type of sensibility up-front that the perhaps more mainstream CMAs and ACMs would shy away from. Trace Adkins is hosting the show, for one thing. The you have Toby Keith, who's often complained that the boards and voters for those other shows have a grudge against him, because of political or business or some other bias. He'll be getting a significant chunk of air change as an honoree Monday night.
7. More airtime for still-viable veterans. For better or worse, the once-stodgy CMAs have started doing more to recognize artists currently in fashion, like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum. That leaves some big stars with a few years under their belt out in the cold. The ACAs are looking to fill in the gag between the Hall of Fame and the flavors of the month or year by having several tribute spots in the show. "Though the rest of the awards are fan-voted, we're able to give some discretionary awards and recognize a trio of superstars for their body of work," says Foster. In this first installment, the honorees will be Alan Jackson and Rascal Flatts, along with the aforementioned Toby Keith.
8. More airtime for newcomers. Says Foster, "We wanted to keep that window from (the end of eligiblity) to showtime very tight, so there was as much relevance on the show as there could be, if a great single popped up. We booked the Band Perry about two and a half months ago, and last week they had the No. 1 single in the country ("If I Die Young"), as a new artist." The Band Perry was squeezed into a truncated slot at the CMAs, "but we'll be giving 'em a chunk of change." Foster is hoping for "what I call the Ricky Martin moment, where he was on the Grammys doing 'Mi Vida Loca' and everybody the next day was talking about it. Hopefully we can walk away from it having helped create some more stars in the format." The Band Perry may be already too big for the ACAs to be able to claim "breaking" them, but at least one other terrific freshman act, the duo Steel Magnolia, is also on the bill and waiting to be broken.
9. Brevity. Unlike virtually every other awards show, the ACAs will clock in at a brisk two hours. That's not necessarily the way the producers wanted it, mind you. "Fox does two hours of prime time—that's their thing," says Foster. But it could make for less of that bloated feeling when viewers retire to bed. It won't hurt the pacing that only five trophies will be given out on-air, from among 15 categories.
10. Christmas time is "you rub my back, I'll rub yours" time. Every artist always has something to sell, and they're never more eager to sell it than in December, which is another reason the ACAs think this will end up being an advantageous slot. "When you look at the country music release schedule, come October through December, almost every week there has been a platinum or gold artist that has had a release out. So we've been able to take advantage of them having product out as well as them being able to take advantage of another major television performance in the fourth quarter."
The ACAs will have to do without a performance by the country star of the moment, Taylor Swift, who's sitting this one out after getting prime-time exposure enough this past month on the CMAs, the AMAs, the CMT Artists of the Year special, and, not incidentally, her own Thanksgiving special. Some other superstars have also taken a wait-and-see attitude toward the ACAs, perhaps waiting to see how 2010's ratings pan out before signing up in future years. But it may be a positive sign that Keith Urban just joined the performers' list at the last minute, perhaps signalling that more of the genre's top stars think the show is for real—or, perhaps, that he didn't realize till just now how much he wants to pedal his new release.
In the meantime, it may be no coincidence that the telecast has such a preponderance of dudes. What do Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, and a lot of the other performers have in common? Answer: You can believe that they'd all come to Vegas whether there was an awards show happening or not.