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Nashville Network -- giant commercial for country music

By
MARK SCHWED

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Nashville Network, a country-flavored network designed to expand the horizons of cable television, will make its debut March 7 with the most extensive live entertainment event in cable history.

Its fare will include live music, a country sitcom and game show, news. Even gospel.

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That's a lot for a network born in a mobile home trailer court in a parking lot behind the Grand Ole Opry House.

Nearly 20 million cable viewers in a record 7 million homes, more than any other cable launch, will receive the first telecast -- a 5-hour live specta:le featuring scores of country music's leading personalities from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Austin, Texas, and Nashville.

Thousands of people will attend the invitation-only, multi-city launch featuring Minnie Pearl, Chet Atkins, Larry Gatlin, Ray Stevens, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, T.G. Sheppard, Tammy Wynette, Don Williams, Lynn Anderson, The Nashville Network Symphony Orchestra and many others.

'We're plowing entirely new ground in cable,' said Tom Griscom, senior vice president for broadcasting at WSM Inc., which also owns the Grand Ole Opry and the Opryland U.S.A. theme park. 'It will bring cable into a major broadcasting arena that is totally new.

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'As far as country music is concerned, it's probably the second most significant event since the beginning of the Opry in 1925.'

The Nashville Network, assembled at a cost $50million, is designed like the big three broadcast networks to reach a broad spectrum of the American public, its creators say. Unlike the cable giants HBO, Showtime, The Movie Channel, ESPN and CNN, which concentrate on movies, sports or news, it will carry a blend of all three. Nor is it like MTV, the 24-hour music cable network that features video clips of rock performances, punctuated by commercials and comment.

TNN will go on the air with 18 hours of programming a day, with plans to expand to 24 hours, and will include the first nightly live entertainment show on cable -- 'Nashville Now!'

There also will be comedy, drama, dance, sports, movies, games and, of course, music -- all with a Nashville flair.

'We're putting on a broadbased network,' GRiscom said.

'It's probably very close to the audience for traditional networks like ABC, NBC and CBS. If you really look at TNN, you're looking at a traditional program network with a country flair.'

TNN officials are banking on the belief the next generation of AMericans will not have the same loyalty to the big three broadcast networks their fathers and grandfathers had.

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'People are going to be looking at cable differently,' Griscom said. 'The new generation is going to be looking at 20 channels like we looked at the three networks. They're all even. Cable is the transmission system of the future.'

The Nashville Network grew out of a concept formulated by Griscom and submitted to parent NLT Corp. in early 1981. The long-range plan included selling the Nashville TV station WSM-TV for $40 million and focusing on wider-reaching entertainment ang connecast projects. Country music was the key.

'EVerywhere we turned, anythi ted with country was booming in a recessionary period,' Griscom said. 'We decided to go with it because nobody else was doing it.'

WSM-TV program director Elmer Alley developed the shows and Group W Satellite Communications, a division of WEstinghouse Broadcasting and Cable INc., has gone partners with WSM on the project. WSM produces the programs and Westinghouse's Group W arranges for distribution, marketing and advertising sales for the network.

The network unites two of the oldest names in American broadcasting. Group W's broadcast experience dates back to 1920 when it introduced the first commercial radio station in America -- KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa. WSM Inc.'s WSM-AM went on the air in 1925.

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Some of the programs will include:

'Nashville Now!' -- a 90-minute country version of Johnny Carson's 'Tonight Show.'

'I-40 Paradise' -- a countrified 'Cheers,' set in a restaurant-entertainment spot outside Nashville, featuring guest appearances by leading country artists. Writers include a Nashville waitress.

'Offstage' -- interviews with guests from the music industry.

'Dancin' USA' -- a Dick Clark-style show on the latest western dances.

'Fandango' -- a game show with contestants answering questions about country music.

'American Sports Cavalcade' -- spotlights 'true American sporting events' like tractor pulls and rodeos.

There also will be western movies, concerts, a gospel show and a show about songwriters hosted by Bobby Bare.

Like the big three networks, TNN is advertiser-supported. In thus is free of charge to cable television systems, unlike pay-TV systems such as HBO.

The CBS Cable network folded last autumn. WSM Inc. isn't worried.

'The similarity between us and CBS Cable ends when you say the two names,' Griscom said. 'We're both advertiser-supported cable services. From there we diverge on different paths through the woods. CBS had a very narrow audience and high production costs. That probably led to its demise.

'Being located in Nashville and in the production business, we have very reasonable production costs.'

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Since Griscom spoke, The Entertainment Network, a 24-hour pay-cable operation jointly owned by RCA and Rockefeller Center Cable Inc., has announced it will go out of business March 31.

The fact TNN is one giant commercial for country music has delighted the executives on Nashville's Music Row who make their living selling country records. It also promises one more shot at a job for aspiring singers, dancers and writers who flock to Nashville.

'Country music has come a long way and the debut of the Nashville Network is sure to take our Nashville entertainment to more fans than ever,' said Roy Acuff, 79, the Grand Ole Opry's 'king of country music' and one of the featured entertainers in TNN's March 7 premier.

'We have taken our music to listeners of the Grand Ole Opry over WSM radio but now the Nashville Network expands our audience to the cable TV viewers across the nation.'

For a while, it seemed as if the only cable network in America named after a city would not be available in Nashville itself. But a multi-service operator, Viacom, decided in late February to pick up the hometown network.

Now Nashville can watch Nashville hit the big time on cable.

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