I've never spent much time watching The Nashville Network. Apparently, I'm not alone. It's been a minor, but traditional, feature of the cable TV landscape since 1983 when the National Life and Accident Insurance Company began the venture. As parent company of WSM AM, FM, and TV, owner of the Grand Old Opry and Opryland theme park, National Life saw the cable TV network as a natural addition to its foothold in the growing country music business. In the early days, there was plenty of cross promotion among those enterprises, with talent from the radio, TV, and entertainment side showing up on cable as well.
Then a bigger insurance company sucked up National Life. With no interest in broadcasting, music, or roller coasters, it sold this end of the business to Gaylord Broadcasting out of Texas. After awhile, Gaylord sold off the TV station for too much money to some Native Americans from Alaska, then decided that conventions, NASCAR souvenirs, and festive retail were the future. Gaylord closed down Opryland to rebuild it as a shopping extravaganza, enlarged the Opryland Hotel, and sold TNN to Westinghouse. Westinghouse then bought CBS and split off its radio and TV business into a separate company under the network's brand name. Since then, Viacom, once the CBS TV syndication division, devoured its former parent in one of 1999's media mega-mergers.
Are you confused yet? Think of how the folks at The Nashville Network feel. Why, it's not even The Nashville Network anymore. The folks at Viacom CBS Cable subtly changed the name to just TNN. They also shifted the programming emphasis away from country music to a wider variety of TV shows. The reason for this change is simple. TNN under any name doesn't have many viewers. Lately, the audience size has been hovering around three quarters of one percent of total US TV eyeballs. TNN probably draws a bigger crowd in Canada.
If you're looking for Dolly, Reba, Shania, Waylon, and Willie, you'd better tune to sister network Country Music Television. The Nashville Sound can hardly be found on the new TNN. In a recent sample week, there were a scant eight hours of country music, mostly clustered around the Grand Ol' Opry telecast on Saturday night. During the same seven days, TNN aired seventeen hours of motor sports, eighteen hours of huntin' and fishin', forty-two hours of Infomercials, and 20 hours of The Dukes of Hazard.
TNN's daytime schedule is mostly reruns of forgettable series like The Real McCoys, TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, Matt Houston, and Cagney and Lacey. The primetime schedule includes original programming like Thrill Zone Friday devoted to wrestling, Roller Jam, and Monster Trucks. On Tuesdays, there's Rockin' Bowl, co-educational intercollegiate bowling with a rockin' house band. But my favorite is 18 Wheels of Justice, an action-adventure series starring Lucky Vanous. He's a secret agent, sort of a low-grade James Bond who drives a big truck instead of a BMW roadster. Billy Dee Williams is his boss, and his nemesis is a mobster played by real-life ex-con G. Gordon Liddy. Each episode features a new song from one of Nashville's hottest stars. Now that's high concept.
One thing is clear. CBS has made radical changes at TNN in an attempt to reposition the network and give it new brand identity. Maybe this programming strategy will click with viewers. Maybe Garth Brooks will try another alternative rock album. Maybe Boss Hogg's cruiser will finally outrun the General Lee. Maybe ninety-nine percent of the TV audience has the right idea.