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ACMs play to a loyal country audience to shore up ratings

In this April 3, 2016 file photo, hosts Luke Bryan, left, and Dierks Bentley appear at the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. The duo will return to host the ACM Awards on Sunday, April 2. (Matt Sayles / Invision via Associated Press)
In this April 3, 2016 file photo, hosts Luke Bryan, left, and Dierks Bentley appear at the 51st annual Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas. The duo will return to host the ACM Awards on Sunday, April 2. (Matt Sayles / Invision via Associated Press)
By Kristin M. Hall Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – As the television industry deals with overall declines in total viewership, organizers behind the Academy of Country Music Awards are focused on keeping the core country music audience coming back each year to watch the genre’s biggest stars party in Las Vegas.

The ACM Awards, airing at 8 p.m. Sunday on CBS, are relying on two likable co-hosts, tried and true stars of the format, cross-genre collaborations, a party vibe and new music to keep fans tuned in.

“The audience that CBS draws to it on a weekly basis is right dead smack in the wheel of country music,” said Jack Sussman, the network’s executive vice president of special, music and live events. “Our audience is that audience and our job is to grow that above and beyond the core whenever we can.”

After decades of hosting the show in Los Angeles, the ACM Awards moved to Las Vegas in 2003 and several days of concerts, pool parties and songwriter showcases lead up to the televised show, which gives it a loose, fun atmosphere that artists enjoy, said R.A. Clark, an executive producer at dick clark productions. “We are the away game,” he said. “It feels more like a party than an awards show.”

The awards show has had positive ratings swings in recent years. In 2013, the show was watched by 15.5 million people, according to the Nielsen company, outdrawing the rival Country Music Association Awards show held the previous November for the first time. During a special 50th anniversary show in 2015 held at a football stadium in Arlington, Texas, just under 16 million people tuned in and gave the show its best viewership in 17 years.

But viewership took a steep drop last year to 11.2 million when the awards show went up against “The Walking Dead” season finale and the iHeartRadio Music Awards.

Marc Berman, editor-in-chief of the website Programming Insider, said ratings for all television, whether its awards shows or scripted series and even some sports, have been declining. The CMA Awards, the American Music Awards and the MTV Video Music Awards have been losing viewers over the past three years as viewership becomes more fragmented.

But Berman said he has little concern for country music awards shows. “There is a very strong base of country fans, I think, that are just very dedicated to country music,” he said. “They are always going to watch.”

This year’s ACM lineup includes reigning entertainer of the year Jason Aldean, Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, Carrie Underwood, Chris Stapleton, Little Big Town, Sam Hunt, Lady Antebellum, Rascal Flatts and Kelsea Ballerini. Luke Bryan and Dierks Bentley return as co-hosts.

The announced collaborations stay pretty squarely within the genre, such as the Backstreet Boys performing with Florida Georgia Line on a song that already has a lot of country airplay. Power couple Faith Hill and Tim McGraw will debut “Speak to a Girl” from their forthcoming duets album; Maren Morris and Thomas Rhett will debut “Craving You,” a duet from two of the genre’s hottest young stars; Reba McEntire will sing a song from her new gospel album with popular Christian singer Lauren Daigle; and Cole Swindell will perform with Bentley on their song “Flatliner.”

“We do everything we can to keep it spontaneous, keep it exciting, keep it surprising so that people will be motivated to tell their friends about it as it’s going on,” said Barry Adelman, another executive producer with dick clark productions.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what somebody might say, you don’t know what might go wrong, or happen unexpectedly. And that’s what gives the show the edge.”

The 52nd annual ACM Awards will air from the T-Mobile Arena. Keith Urban is the top nominee with seven, including a bid for entertainer of the year, pitting him against Aldean, Underwood, Bryan and Florida Georgia Line.

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