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Television With A Country Flavor

March 15, 1998|JOE EDWARDS | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Country music and wholesome lifestyles. That's not supposed to be a recipe for success for a national cable station, but it is for TNN: The Nashville Network.

Celebrating its 15th anniversary this month, TNN shuns sex and violence, selecting programs instead that target fishermen, auto racing enthusiasts--and families.

"There's nothing on our network you have to apologize for," says TNN president David Hall. Then he adds: "We're trying to seek a country lifestyle image that says wholesome family entertainment."

For Hall, TNN is also the channel for cowboys and country music.

Broadcasting from the country music capital of the world, TNN uses a guitar neck for its logo and "We Are Country" for its slogan. Programs include bull riding from Texas, live music from the Grand Ole Opry House, and two-stepping on "Club Dance," with dancers in bright Western duds featured in a country music version of "Soul Train."

There also are auto repair shows, country music videos and concerts, and reruns of "Dallas" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." TNN won't air violent movies, opting for tranquil programs like "The Waltons," which begins in April.

TNN's flagship program, "Prime Time Country," is a countrified "Tonight" show. It was on this program, in 1992, that presidential candidate Bill Clinton did the University of Arkansas hog call.

Host Gary Chapman periodically offers a monologue, with interviews of country stars and of occasional special guests like actor Robert Duvall. The singers always perform, usually a selection from a recent record.

Countering A&E's "Biography," TNN offers one-hour documentaries, also country style, about country performers such as Roy Acuff, Carl Perkins and Eddy Arnold.

It airs specials about car racing legends like Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. Citing the growth of motor sports over nine years at TNN, Hall says: "The fan base at NASCAR grew with us." This year, TNN will broadcast more than 90 live racing events.

The "Crook & Chase" variety show--similar to "Regis & Kathie Lee"--has returned to TNN after a short stint in syndication. Mindful of its country audience, TNN in January promoted one segment this way: "Country legend Tammy Wynette cooks her hometown recipe for Mississippi stuffed bell peppers."

Another variety program, "The Statler Bros. Show" on Saturday night, is the station's highest-rated weekly series. Seen in 1.4 million households, it features acts rarely shown elsewhere: jugglers, magicians and ventriloquists, along with the Statler quartet performing uplifting country songs devoid of themes about illicit sex and drinking.

And, like cable competitor MTV, TNN has its own awards show, with winners picked in part by TNN viewers. But there are no loud MTV electric guitars, just country weepers with fiddles as the instrument of choice.

Since 1986, all Sunday programming has been devoted to auto racing, motorcycling, fishing and rodeos. No news shows, no football, no preachers.

The formula attracts viewers in 75 million U.S. households. In the fourth quarter last year, TNN ranked 11th in the Nielsen ratings among 40 basic cable systems. It had a larger audience than MTV, except for weekends, and rated ahead of CNBC, E! Entertainment Television and ESPN2.

Owned by CBS, TNN broadcasts 18 hours daily, from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. EST, from a complex next to the Grand Ole Opry House. It is available on about 14,200 cable systems.

"You hear about New York and Hollywood, but little ol' Nashville put up a country music service," Hall says. "In 15 years, we're in excess of 70 million homes and have a profitable business."

As he notes: "We have more competitors, and we're not losing ground."

One dedicated viewer is Carl Knepper of Stateline, Pa., who visits Nashville and TNN studios every year or so. In February, he attended 26 tapings in two weeks.

"They have a good variety of shows and they are fit to watch," says Knepper, a retired electrical engineer. "Some of the shows on the other stations are better left off."

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