CMT Execs on Why 'American Idol' Rules Country and How the Industry is 'Divided' on Reality Show Success

Underwood Pickler McCreery Split - H 2012
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Underwood Pickler McCreery Split - H 2012

Though Tuesday night’s American Idol victor, Phillip Phillips, is a rocker, the show has undoubtedly become a breeding ground for country artists. From Carrie Underwood to Kellie Pickler to Scotty McCreery, a fair amount will be represented at next month’s 11th Annual CMT Music Awards.

CMT President Brian Philips tells The Hollywood Reporter that shows like Idol and The Voice have been “particularly kind to country.”

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“I think these music competition shows have been good for music… These shows have given us some of our biggest and prolific stars,” Philips said. “[They have] built some television personalities for people who might have had a harder time working their way through the system.”

Philips said that country music, the number one music choice for adults aged 18-49, rates high on competition shows purely based on demographics. He cites the Grammy Award-winning Underwood as a prime example of the multigenerational appeal of the genre. He also said that fans are turned off by artists viewed as a "studio contrivance... made out of special effects.”

"You really have to be able to sing," he said of country stars. "You have to have the goods to begin with. You gotta be able to deliver live."

Philips acknowledged that not everyone in the country community has welcomed these programs with open arms. Most notably, country artist Eric Church recently bashed the many artists who judge and audition for reality shows, saying: “I don’t know what would make an artist do that. You’re not an artist,”

“They’re divided,” Philips said, referencing the country community's feelings on the topic. “Clearly [reality competitions] are not for everybody.”

Idol season 5 finalist Kellie Pickler is a one of many examples of a television success story. She is nominated for Female Video Artist of the Year at the June 6 ceremony.

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"Whatever you have to do to get where you're going you gotta do," she said. As for Church’s comments, Pickler acknowledged that his statement may have been taken out of context, but added: “I haven’t lost a damn bit of sleep over it.”

“It does not surprise me that [Church], or any other artist that paid their dues playing every shithole honky-tonk and bar in America, would not be a fan of fast track stardom on talent shows,” said CMT’s SVP, Music Events & Talent, John Hamlin. “On the other hand, if you are a truly gifted singer, overnight success -- which is literally what the talent show track can be -- is equally admirable in my book. One in a million is one in a million.”

The reality game hasn’t just launched unknown talent in the industry, it’s given notable boosts to the careers of previously established musicians including Blake Shelton. Before serving as a coach on NBC’s The Voice, Shelton’s 2008 album, Startin’ Fires, peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard country chart and at No. 34 on the all-encompassing Billboard 200. Most recently, his 2011 release Red River Blue peaked at No. 1 on both charts.

“Thankfully for him, The Voice was the booster rocket to get more of America to see all that he has to offer as an entertainer,” said Hamlin, who also serves as an executive producer on the upcoming CMT Music Awards. “Having the opportunity for America to fall in love with you on national television every week for four months, is priceless.”

With Idol facing stiff competition in the ratings, as well as the caliber of talent, from The Voice and Simon Cowell’s X Factor, Fox's original singing competition still reigns supreme when it comes to launching careers – especially in country -- but why?

“If you want to try and get famous fast by going to a cattle call audition on TV, Idol reasonably remains the first choice for anyone,” said Hamlin. “Country music is the No. 1 format in America and Idol is the most-widely watched. The two go together well.”

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