The Country Network Gets New Life, Focuses on Music and Independent Artists

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Country Network TCN Tim Eaton Critical Blast

Music television. From the onset of networks like MTV, VH1, TNN and others, the explosion of what people could watch years ago brought a visual aspect that musical artists had to take advantage of or get steamrolled. If you didn't have at least a concert video to go with your killer song, then you didn't have anything people were talking about -- and worse, nothing they were listening to. As time went by, the networks that built their viewership on music videos have become music networks in name only, with few millenials even realizing what these reality show channels used to be.

The Country Network is looking to buck that trend and get back to the roots of the movement, at least for country fans. We spoke with Tim Eaton, TCN's President and CEO about exactly what his vision is for the revived TCN and how it's going to engage country music fans.

What brought you to take out of TCN. And you recently bought out the brand, I supposed as a channel under ZUUS Networks.

I knew one of the board members on Zeus’s. That’s how the offer came. There was a German company that was looking at buying ZUUS media, but they only wanted to buy the OTT, they didn’t want to buy the OTA. The difference is OTA is household, where it’s over the air. They didn’t want to deal with that, they just wanted the digital platform. So that’s how it began, we got a call and decent rates and they said, “Hey! If you liked it, and you’re interested in purchasing it, you’ve got twenty-one days to raise the money and give an answer.” Because otherwise they were just gonna let it go. And we said, well wait a minute, let us take a look.

The building that I am in, it’s a 39,000 square foot production facility that has done network origination for five other networks in the past, so we have the structure and the capability to do that. That’s one of the reasons I received the call from that person. So with that we were saying, “Okay, let’s take a look at this.” And we took what they were doing in Nashville as far as some of the original content, and we liked that because we build original content. So we liked what they were doing, and said, “You know what? If we can take and augment with a few more original shows, then I think we’ve got a network here that could be valuable.” They only had one stream of income coming in for the OTA and that was the direct response ad. If you’re familiar with that, it’s an 800 number you call in. “Buy now, there’s only 27 of them left!” So we looked at that and said we think we could take it and build more traditional ad sales by driving people, social media-wise. The negative is you can’t get a rating on a music video, but you can on a TV show. So what we looked at was, could we get the ratings on TV shows versus a four-minute music video, and help our traditional ad sales grow from there. But we also plan on doing digital on our website, so we plan on increasing the number of revenue stream towers that makes it a little be more profitable.

We also have a production company here in Forth Worth, that works out of the three sound stages we have. We’ve already developed one new show called “Our Land: The Music Highway,” and they shot in our studio and they said over and over, “We can record our next album in this building, it has such great acoustics.”

So we’re looking at expanding and maybe doing more music videos, recording albums and then of course, creating more original content here and in Nashville. We’re keeping a presence in Nashville because that’s Music City and we can’t abandon the birthplace of this organization.

What are your plans for TCN to make it stand apart from other entities out there that have similar country music venues like CMT?

Well, I don’t know when the last time you watched CMT but they’ve gotten to where every time I turn it on it’s an Adam Sandler movie, or there’s a reality show that has drunk rednecks and half-naked women. I think the way we’re gonna stand apart is that we’re gonna be about the music. We’re about the country music, we’re not necessarily about just making a dollar off of ad sales on a TV show. We’re going to grow the network, that’s our first job. We already launched in seven new cities since we bought it. We’ve only had it ninety-four days now. So we’ve expanded into seven new cities, new markets and we’re starting to expand there. We’re working with B2B America. They’re plan on buying up another sixty markets over the course of the next three years. We’re with Sinclair Broadcast, and we hope to get on more cable carriers. So we wanna grow the network, that’s the first step, just grow the network. Get it into more hands, get it into more cities so people can actually watch us, either on their cable or on their AT antenna.

But to stand apart, right now, we run about sixteen hours a day of music video and when you look at CMT, I think they’re down to five or six hours a day music video, and the rest of the time it’s movies and tv shows. The same with Great American Country, I think they’re down to eight hours a day. So we’ve seen our competitors, if we call it competitors, we’ve seen the other networks steer away from doing country music, but they’ll tell you it’s because they can’t get ratings on that, and they’re using the ratings to bring in the ad dollars. So the way we push it is through sponsorship and through driving you to social media with contests and things like that. That’s the way we will separate ourselves. Our contests will give you a chance to spend some time with an artist, a chance to see one of our live tapings of a show with one of those artists. So we think we can grow the network with the new affiliates, but also grow the revenue streams by just adding more original content.

I’m old enough to remember The Nashville Network. Originally, it was a lot like what you’re describing TCN is going to be, and I watched it devolve into TNN and ultimately into Spike. No one watching Spike today would ever think it was originally a country music network. So it sounds like you’ve got a plan in place to avoid that particular path of devolution?  

Well, I have to tell you this, when a Viacom or someone like that comes and buys your network, they’’re gonna go do what they’re gonna do with it. That’s what happened with TNT, it was bought by Viacom. You’re working with a much bigger animal. But this boy says, “Okay, here’s what we wanna do.” I don’t know that anybody’s going to come offer that, but five to six years down the line somebody may offer us, and then turned the entire network and start doing more Adam Sandler movies. I can’t control that part. But what I can control is now, to say we’re not going to do the reality shows, we’re not going to do the movies just to sell out and make some money. We want to stay true to the music. Everybody on our team , everybody plays an instrument. They’re not musicians , we’re not out there on the road, but we have a love for music. We have a passion for the music and I think that separates us from some of the others; we want to help the independent artist.

Some people are always going to find the selling artist. The Universal artist, the Warner artist -- those people are going to get their air time.  There’s an enormous amount of talent  that doesn’t have access to play their videos to be seen. A lot of it’s coming out of the Texas music scene -- the Americana, the blue grass. So there’s a lot of genres that we want to play in that those people are independent and they don’t have access. So if we can give them access, we want to help other artists find their way to become known. And if we can do that, that helps what we’re trying to do. We love the independent artist. They’re struggling, they’re out there doing 200 cities a year trying to make ends meet. And you’ve heard these stories from the people that have made it, how many years they busted their butt trying to make things happen. You’ve heard of things like Chris Stapleton who was a  ten-years overnight success. So we’re wanting to help some of the independent artists and if we can help those guys find a place to be heard, then that’s what we want to do.

We’re still going to work with all major labels and bring in all those great videos, because that’s what the consumer wants. Our meat and potatoes is the 34 to 54. That’s who we really go after. Country music has kind of changed; now that 18 to 34 year old really is into some of the new artists. So we’ve kind of got two separate demos, where some of our music is going to be the contemporary country that will really resonate to the 18 to 34 year old, but then there’s also that extra scene -- the red dirt, the Americana -- that the 35 to 54 year old remembers. And I’m not even in our demo. I’m outside of our demo, but I do, like you, I remember in 1998, I was watching music videos. I was watching people like Faith Hill that I‘d never heard of, and say, “This girl’s got some talent!” So I think we’re in  the same position that it was then.  But then when Viacom comes and buys them, then Viacom makes the decision of what they want to do.

We can’t control what may happen in the future, all we can control is what’s happening right now, and we think that we can put some original programming out there, because we have the facility here to be able to do that. We’re also in negotiation with one (and I can’t give you the names) one honky tonk in Nashville and one honky tonk here in the Dallas / Fort Worth area, to do live shows from there. And those names, when you hear those names, you’ll go, “Wow, I’ve always wanted to go there!” Or, ”I remember when I saw so-and-so there.” And we think that those bigger names will draw a lot more interest in what we’re doing.

But at the end of the day we want to get more affiliates. We’re in 40 markets that have D&A households of about 40 million. And we want to get to that hundred million D&A number, and if we can do that over the next three to five years, then I think what we’ve done we’ve reached out to offer our network to all the right people. When we bought this network, we bought it base in what we can do with it, and one of the thing we say we can do with it is grow it in affiliates. We plan on going OTT also. We can build apps so you can get it on your phone, get it on your ROKU, get it on your smart TV and get in on your iPad. We will go that route, but the first thing we want to do is be true to where this network really started, which was over the air, so you go home and you get it on your television. That’s where our heart is right now. That and bringing in more independents. Then just growing the network and the revenue streams and then look up in a couple years, and we’ll see where we are.

Well, we love the independent artist at Critical Blast as well. We’ll do a music review on a new album from someone like a Toby Keith, we just get drowned out from all the other agencies out there running reviews on the same thing. But when we have an independent artist who has a hardcore fan following, and somebody finds our review, they post it to their Facebook group and suddenly everybody just swarms in to read it.

You just get what we do. Our whole point is to take an independent artist and go out there and get their 15 or 20 thousand followers to spread the love. And if they do that then all of a sudden people are finding more out more about that independent artist, because if they see that it was a clip on one of our shows, now they’ve heard about TCN and now they can follow us.

Everybody can follow us online. We’ve got it streaming online, you can always watch it there. But we really want to make sure that -- our goal is at some point you get out of your car and you’ve listened to it , then you walk into the house with your phone and you’re listening to it, you go inside the house and you’re watching it. So we wanna try and get it to where you can watch it everywhere. But we do know that’s a two to three year plan. We want to stick with the OTA right now, and really grow that OTA as much as we can, and get into as many D&A households as possible.

So I go home, I turn on my TV, I’m going through all my cable channels and haven’t found you yet. I switch over my HD and look there, and TCN isn’t there. Now what do I do?

Go in the internet to TCNCountry.com and you watch it there. Then you pick up the phone and you call your local affiliate and you say, “Hey! I’m watching this, it’s something that I’m not sure what it is, but I sure wish you guys would start running TCN.” That’s what we want, we want people actually calling in affiliates and saying, “Hey! We need TCN.” Like I said, we’re at 40 markets, I want to be in a hundred markets. I’m not there yet, so they can contact us and say, “Hey! I’m in Louisville, Kentucky and I would like to really watch your network.” Well, if we get enough of those calls, then we start pounding on the doors in Louisville, Kentucky and say, “Hey! We’ve got a lot of people in your area that are asking when we’re coming. Let’s take a look at doing a partnership.”

Since the press release dropped, we’ve had a couple of people contact us, affiliates, and say are you guys looking for new affiliates?  So the more they call in, the better. We’ll continue to grow at a very rapid rate. We’re not even in the Dallas market until June 1st, so even in our hometown market here, we don’t have a location for people to go watch it other than  the Internet. But that’s June 1st. The same with Oklahoma City, Tulsa, San Antonio, some of the areas around us. Those come online with DTV America on June 1st.

I love what you’re say about the “10 year-overnight success stories” that hopefully we’re gonna see come out of the artists who start appearing on TCN. I remember I was at a different website a while back, doing lesser duties, and I was covering a show called “Nashville Star” every week, and ranking the people who were on and noting who was winning.

I remember that show!

These guys who won it, I don’t see anything from them. But I remember telling the readers then, “Hey, this little girl who lost, this American sweetheart named Miranda Lambert? Keep an eye on her, because you’ll be seeing her around.”

Hahaha, yeah. Well my ability to pick great singers is not very good. I had this music venue, I’ve owned two theaters that I turned into live music listening venues. One was the Texas Theater in Waxahachie, Texas, one was the Farr Best Theater in Mansfield, Texas. LeAnn Rimes was thirteen, came in and played an opry in my theater and everybody was going crazy over her. And I said “‘Yeah , she’s just another kid with a decent voice. I don’t expect much from her.” And look what she did! So I’m the last one to say, “Oh, this person is going to be a great star,” or “That person is not going to,” because I’ve been proved wrong already with LeAnn Rimes.

But I’m with you, the more independents that we can help ,the better. You know, when you go to work for a Sony, they’re gonna put a lot of money behind it that people are going to get a chance to listen to your music. But that guy, in the south somewhere that’s working 200 days a year, all he’s talking to is to is 50 to 500 people a night in some honky tonk bar. That’s a slow grow. Now if we can put him in front of millions of people, social media-wise, listeners will go to their website, they’ll go to their Facebook, their Snapchat. They want to see more about who this person is, and we want to be that network that really introduces you to the new artists.