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ABC's 'Nashville' is an example of how traditional TV 'bubble' rules don't apply

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Stars of "Nashville" including Charles Esten, Clare Bowen and Jonathan Jackson performed songs from the ABC drama at a New York theatre this week — and they hope rabid fans weren't the only ones watching.

Now is a nerve-jangling time for actors and creators of television shows, one week before the biggest broadcast networks reveal their plans for next season. The wait is particularly intense for series like "Nashville" that are considered on the bubble between returning and having the plug pulled.

The decisions get more complicated every year. Broadcast executives have more than just ratings to consider, and "Nashville" offers a good example. A thumbs-down from ABC not only ends a televised soap opera, but also a growing music franchise.

"I'm a combination of optimistic and emotionally vulnerable," Esten, who portrays Deacon Claybourne, the musical and former romantic partner to fictional country star Rayna James (Connie Britton), said before Tuesday's concert. "Everyone seems to be coming to a nice peak right now."

Under the old rules, "Nashville" would probably be toast by now. It was on the bubble last year, too, and in its second season averaged 4.5 million viewers, the Nielsen company said. That's down 9 per cent from the show's rookie season, 18 per cent among the youthful demographic ABC cares most about. In an industry obsessed by youth, the median age of the "Nashville" audience increased by two years.

Fortunately, "next-day ratings don't really mean as much as they used to," said Brad Adgate, a television analyst for Horizon Media.

Networks also look at how many people stream the show online, or record it to watch later on DVRs. This delayed viewing isn't as valuable to a network as people who watch live, but it counts for something, and "Nashville" adds to its audience more this way than most ABC shows, said Kevin Beggs, chairman of Lionsgate Television Group, the show's producer.

That indicates a devoted group of fans that makes time to watch every episode. Even if that group is small, passion is important, he said.

"More than ever it's about finding fan bases that are more than casual, who are obsessed with a show," he said.

ABC's parent Walt Disney Co. shares in ancillary revenue from CDs of music featured on "Nashville" (the fourth collection was released Tuesday) and the concert tour. More than 600,000 soundtrack CDs have been sold, according to Big Machine Label Group. A special collection of tunes from the show's April 23 performance special was immediately made available on iTunes and was among the top five country albums two weeks later.

ABC, its executives spending hours in screening rooms this week evaluating programming options, isn't tipping its hand on the chances of a "Nashville" return.

The closely watched TV by the Numbers website lists it as a show in some doubt, but predicted it has more than a 70 per cent chance of returning to ABC's schedule next year. Among the shows the website also considers on the bubble are NBC's "Hannibal," ''Community" and "Growing Up Fisher," along with CBS' "Friends With Better Lives."

Perhaps tempting fate, or subtly encouraging ABC to keep it alive, "Nashville" writers will end the second season with cliffhanger plotlines involving several of the show's characters, Beggs said.

Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine, said he watched the "Nashville" pilot to be polite two years ago, but was hooked 15 minutes in when he heard the song "If I Didn't Know Better." That ranks No. 4 of the most-purchased "Nashville" songs on iTunes. A cover of The Lumineers' "Ho Hey," with more than 190,000 copies downloaded, is No. 1.

Each week after an episode airs, new songs are made available for sale.

"The music has been a great way to gauge what is going on with the viewing habits and purchasing habits," he said.

The concert tour wasn't specifically scheduled to take place at the time network executives are making decisions on the show's future; it was because shooting of episodes was over and the actors had the time, he said. But the timing doesn't hurt.

Depending on ABC's decision in the coming days, it could be the first and last concert tour, Borchetta said. The spigot of new music will also be turned off if everything ends.

"If the series gets cancelled tomorrow, the actors are going to scatter like mice and you won't have this opportunity," he said.


David Bauder can be reached at or on Twitter@dbauder. His work can be found at .



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