James Hitchcock had zero reason to meet with MTV Networks honcho Judy McGrath. It was 2003, and she wanted to talk about some country-music job in Nashville, Tennessee. But Hitchcock, in his late thirties at the time, had already broken through to the highest levels of the New York ad world with a resume that read like a who's who of creative shops. He loved his Manhattan apartment. And on top of it all, he and his partner had just gotten a new dog.
Hitchcock took the meeting, because when McGrath calls, it's just smart to pay attention. As it turned out, she wanted him to take over the creative and marketing departments at MTV Networks' country-music station, CMT. Yeah, right, he thought—until McGrath said the magic words: Change everything, and we'll back you 100%. "I'd heard that before, but this was the first time I believed it," Hitchcock says.
CMT had stumbled into the cool-obsessed MTV division as a very uncool redneck orphan after MTV's parent, Viacom International, and CBS merged in 2000. The problem: While CMT's subscriber base of about 40 million homes was respectable enough, its audience mirrored the country-radio demographic—a decidedly unsexy over-35 crowd that didn't see much wrong with a programming approach that amounted to an irony-free parade of bad hairstyles.
In 2001, MTV Networks recruited a Dallas radio maverick named Brian Philips to drive CMT younger and hipper. But not too young or too hip. CMT had to walk the fine line between Billy Ray Cyrus and the Red Hot Chili Peppers—matching its sister networks MTV, VH1, and Comedy Central for cool while not alienating too many among its traditional core of heartland viewers.
Hitchcock had negotiated that sort of challenge before. During his agency days, he helped position Target as a house of fashion and steered the History Channel away from its image as the "Hitler network." For CMT, his plan called for polishing up the core icons of country music—woeful ballads, cowboy hats, and pickup trucks—and showing them off in surprising new ways through offbeat publicity stunts and advertising.
MTV Networks got its first taste of its country cousin's new creative direction at a budget presentation in New York. Execs were handed T-shirts that read, s—t happens. we sing about it. cmt. Well, that got folks' attention. "It was our opening salvo to say to the executives that CMT's brand evolution had begun," said Michael Engleman, a former MTV staffer and Boston-bred English-lit major from Tufts, whom Hitchcock had lured to Nashville as his lieutenant.
So there it was: A gay Manhattanite with sharp fashionista sensibilities and a Northeastern snark master were now in charge of marketing the flagship television station for country music—and they weren't afraid to bust up a few conventions. If it was change McGrath wanted at CMT, she got it.
"There were a lot of things happening in country music—like Johnny Cash releasing his video for 'Hurt' and Loretta Lynn teaming up with Jack White—that made it a good time for us to get rid of a bunch of crap," Hitchcock says. Cash and Lynn had both drawn on rock-world influences to create some of the rawest country ever made, music that shattered demographic and genre barriers. The music reflected what Hitchcock and Engleman were trying to pull off: remaining true to everything country music had always been while still making the network accessible to someone turned off by cornball stereotypes of hay bales and Hee Haw.
The duo attacked the problem in some relatively prosaic ways—creating, for example, a new faux-wood font for the CMT logo. But in early 2005, the network set its sights on one of the all-time great country icons: the 1980s sitcom The Dukes of Hazzard. Cornball—check. Hay bales—check. CMT cagily played with the stereotypes for its revival of the series, announcing a nationwide job search on sites such as Monster.com to find a new vice president for the Dukes of Hazzard Institute, a position that would pay some lucky couch potato $100,000 for one year just to watch the show and blog about it.
The campaign appealed to the post-ironic sensibilities of urban hipsters—like the eventual contest winner, a 28-year-old aspiring writer living in New York's East Village who says he hadn't regularly watched the network. But it was still, well, funny for old Hazzard fans. The gambit produced a media sensation, with stories everywhere from CNN to free community papers. Even better, the Dukes' debut won CMT its highest weekend audience numbers ever, bringing in more than 23 million viewers and scoring well among that coveted, but ever-shifting, demographic: young men.
CMT has since scored other ratings coups—notably with its surprising pickup from ABC of the Miss America Pageant, which aired in January, and again with this year's CMT Music Awards. Its reach has grown by 24% in three years, to 82 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research. And gross ad revenues should reach $144.8 million this year, estimates Kagan Research LLC, up from $84.9 million in 2003.
More important, CMT has raised its cultural metabolism. Hitchcock and Engleman convinced Limore Shur, creative director at EyeballNYC, a cutting-edge SoHo production company known for creating daring, hip-hop-flavored commercial spots for the likes of Best Buy and Nike, to collaborate on a series of new network- identification spots. "What? Why us?" Shur recalls asking at the time. Now, he says, he is impressed with the depth of CMT's image overhaul. "By embracing the roots of the country-music culture, I think they have allowed all these beautiful parts to show through."
CMT has a ways to go before being ushered into pop culture's pantheon of cool. This is, after all, still the channel where, according to recent program notes, "Hank Williams Jr. takes Joe Nichols to rural Paris, Tennessee, for his first ever turkey hunt."
"But that's okay," Hitchcock muses. "It would freak me out to be at a place like MTV. Where do you take a brand like that?" Hmmm. Maybe a trip to the country would do it some good.
Ryan Underwood, a former Fast Company staff writer, covers the music industry for The Tennessean in Nashville.
A version of this article appeared in the September 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.