NEW YORK — When executives at Country Music Television earlier this year began watching the first cuts of "Racing Wives," their new show about the spouses of NASCAR stars, something felt off. Producers had taken women with complexity and depth and reduced them to extensions of their husbands.
"It just seemed residual," said Chris McCarthy, the president of MTV, VH1 and Logo who in the fall had CMT added to his portfolio. "Why isn't the show about the women themselves?"
Though much of the season was already completed, McCarthy and his programming president Nina Diaz told producers to recut what they had and even shoot new footage.
"They wanted to highlight the strength of the women, to make the show more empowering by showing their individual aspirations," said "Racing Wives" executive producer Jenny Daly. The series, which debuts Aug. 2, now centers more on the inner lives of the women, which includes Ashley Busch, a world-class polo player and swimwear entrepreneur whose husband is NASCAR driver Kurt Busch. Producers also added a female driver, Amber Balcaen, who recently raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports.
If you're like many viewers, you may not have paid much attention to CMT in the era of programming overload. But what is quietly unfolding at the Viacom-owned network is one of the bolder gambles in these furiously culturally divided times.
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While the network is not abandoning country's core demographic, which tends to be whiter and more conservative than other musical genres, McCarthy and Diaz are attempting to nudge it in new directions - toward feminism and racial diversity and away from its historical white roots.
This is, after all, the summer of "Old Town Road," when Lil Nas X, a 20-year-old gay African American, has dominated the charts with a country-rap smash. (On Monday the song landed at No. 1 for its 17th week on the Billboard chart, an all-time record.) A country-music network that crosses the genre's traditional lines couldn't be more timely, says McCarthy, who has helped turn around MTV with a slew of new programming.
But achieving success with that strategy is easier said than done. America remains enmeshed in a culture war, and country music often sits at its center. Last month, the country host Blair Garner was prohibited by his employer, Atlanta-based Cumulus Media, from airing an interview he recorded with Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
Whether the genre's traditional audience in the South and lower Midwest wants to follow New York executives known for MTV shows like "Ex on the Beach" remains to be seen. Feeling woke is one thing. Trying to move a base that eyes it skeptically is another.
"It's nice to say that this is a good moment for change because of 'Old Town Road.' But those are mainly hip-hop fans discovering country, not the other way around," said Phil Gallo, senior editor at Hits, a music-business trade publication. "I don't know how far [the country audience] has really moved."
At the heart of CMT's shift is a question bedeviling much of Hollywood: how to deliver content for an under-served red-state audience while satisfying an impulse for progressivism.
CMT is an important cog in Viacom's business. The company's cable networks accounted for more than 75% of its $3 billion in revenue in its most recent quarter. While MTV and Nickelodeon drive many of those dollars, the fickle nature of cable-advertising revenue - not to mention the larger specter of cord-cutting - make the health of networks like CMT critical.
The network has done well enough in recent years with shows including "Guntucky," "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders," "Redneck Island," and "My Big Redneck Wedding." But McCarthy and Diaz, given control of CMT in October after a Viacom executive shakeup, felt there was a way to update the network's sensibility without losing viewers.
"CMT has always been distinctive and had its own voice; it appeals to different places and different demographics [than other networks]," said Diaz, a veteran producer and executive who counts shows such as "The Osbournes" and "Mob Wives" among her credits. "But it's always important to be reflecting the times and where we're headed, not to get stuck in tropes and stereotypes."
In addition to the retooled "Racing Wives," Diaz and McCarthy have put into development "Sweet Jesus," a baking competition show set in the south that showcases a variety of religious perspectives - well, a lot of Christian ones, anyway.
Dan Cesareo, the producing force behind "Sweet Jesus," says the goal is to signal to parts of the audience they're being considered without being exclusionary. "We're embracing all faiths, but it's not a faith-based show," he said.
He added the series was inclusive "by being about the best pie, cobbler and sticky bun."
"Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders," a making-the-squad program about the team's iconic dancers, has enjoyed a long run of 13 seasons. But producers say the 14th will look a little different, thanks to the new CMT regime.
"We think we can go a little more inside the conversations the [aspiring cheerleaders] are having and show their empowerment," said Stu Schreiberg, the show's executive producer. "Chris and Nina say they want to celebrate the positive in our society, and our show fits right into that."
As he sat in his office high above Times Square, McCarthy laid out his vision for CMT. Positivity is indeed a priority; too much reality television, he says, is centered on conflict. Live musical events, especially from Nashville, Tennessee, are also important. And costs must be reasonable - he prefers cheaper unscripted programming. (CMT has flirted with scripted, but McCarthy says he has little interest in returning to it.)
But most important, he said, are the values of inclusiveness.
"We're saying 'let's look at the programming slate. Let's look at shows that appeal to the audience of CMT,'" the 44-year-old, clad in black, said. "But let's not do it through residual eyes." Among the show he is referring to is "Farmer Needs a Wife," a reboot he killed in development shortly after he arrived because of its retrograde sensibility. (The original, an adaptation of a British series that ran briefly on The CW, had a group of young women auditioning to be the wife of an unattached male farmer.)
"We're not leaving country's traditional audience behind - we're taking them with us," he added.
To be fair, some of that thinking did begin with a previous CMT administration. Under former Viacom executive Kevin Kay, the network saw ratings growth in every week of 2017 thanks to shows like "Nashville" and its strong female characters.
Still, that mix also contained programs like "Steve Austin's Broken Skull Challenge." And even shows like "Nashville" were lightly watched - an average of just about 750,000 viewers for its most recent season.
The diversity will also have a different effect now, McCarthy suggested, because the industry is in a different place. Female stars such as Kelsea Ballerini and Maren Morris often outdraw male ones, he said. And the popularity of artists including Kane Brown, who is multi-racial, and Lil Nas X suggest the country-music establishment has already embraced racial diversity - often by way of musical mashups.
"We think of music as country and hip-hop. It's not that clean," McCarthy said. "Fans can love both. Artists can do both."
Some experts are less sure a crossover moment is underway.
"I don't see it," said Todd Boyd, a well-known professor of race and popular culture at the University of Southern California. "There might be some marketing objectives in blending them, but country and hip-hop are distinct in culture and style. Lil Nas X stepped in a lucky puddle..., and good for him. But will 'Old Town Road' really be the beginning of a trend?" Boyd asked, raising the possibility that it could well be a summer novelty whose artist later becomes a footnote. "I think it's more likely to be the Macarena of 2019."
The signs of a more permanent commingling are there, but faint. The current top song on the Billboard Hot Country chart is "The Git Up," a country-rap song and social-media dance phenomenon from the African American artist Blanco Brown. But the next seven songs are all straightforward pop-country tunes. And they're all from white men.
"There are still a lot of myths in country music, particularly about women, and they can become self-fulfilling prophecies," acknowledged Leslie Fram, CMT's Nashville-based senior vice president of music and talent. She checked off a few of them, including the longtime canard embraced by some country-radio programmers that playing consecutive songs by female artists was bad business. "But we think we can help address them with what we're doing."
Fram and Nashville-based colleague Margaret Comeaux, CMT's vice-president of music and event production, have spearheaded Next Women of Country, a tour spotlighting emergent female artists. And at the recent CMT Awards, Ballerini was the most watched act among adults ages 18 to 49, CMT executives noted.
Still, the executives declined to provide internal data suggesting that viewers sought the changes being implemented.
Instead, they pointed to the fact that 60% of "Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders" were new to CMT, suggesting general opportunities for growth. They also noted a study conducted by the Country Music Association that suggested increased levels of country fandom among Latinos and African Americans - 47% of the first group and 35% of the second listen to country music at least once per week, according to the organization.
CMT executives also cited a survey by the ad company Mediamark Research and Intelligence that 93% of country-music fans value "equality" and "open-mindedness."
A more inclusive appeal to the heartland isn't the only way CMT can bring in viewers. Part of the plan, McCarthy says, is to attract people outside country strongholds.
The network last month aired its flagship music awards on MTV, TV Land and other Viacom networks, drawing a strong audience of 2.7 million. McCarthy cited the popularity of country-music stations in New York and Los Angeles - both in the top six markets, according to trade publication Country Aircheck. And CMT says New York is one of "Dallas Cowboys'" top five markets.
"There's a little bit of country in all of us," McCarthy said, using a go-to mantra. "And we want to speak to it."
Perhaps most emblematic of the shift is "Nashville Squares," a new spin on the classic "Hollywood Squares." The host of "Nashville "Squares," The Washington Post has learned, will be Bob Saget, who recently concluded filming the 10-episode season. The "Full House" star is not exactly who comes to mind when one thinks of country music. His selection, executives say, represents the broader direction the network hopes to go.
"I wasn't told to put anything in a country framework or put on a twang," Saget said of the show, which also stars "This Is Us" actor Chris Sullivan and "Mindy Project's" Fortune Feimster, among others more associated with country. "But I kind of talk in that country way anyway. And I write country parody songs," he said, before offering an example both funny and unprintable.
Whether such a broadening will go over well in a world that fears (and sometimes monetizes) the trampling of identity by elites and outside forces remains to be seen. Some in the country establishment cheered when "Old Town Road" was removed from Billboard's country chart, and welcomed its return only after Lil Nas X re-recorded a version featuring the country stalwart Billy Ray Cyrus.
Songs from Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan, avatars of the controversial subgenre known as "bro country," also remain popular.
CMT's partners say more change is on the horizon than those markers would suggest.
"What CMT is saying is that the country audience is longing for a new direction. And so they're leaning in to something that points forward instead of what might have worked in the past," said Daly, the "Racing Wives" producer.
She paused. "I guess we'll find out if they're right."
This article was written by Steven Zeitchik, a reporter for The Washington Post.