Tennessee Cable Television Networks

The cable television industry in Tennessee, represented by several different networks, has increased the visibility of the state and positioned it as a culturally relevant and important part of the American media landscape. These networks have often focused on values and traditions highly valued in the South, including religion and country music, but have not remained exclusive to those legacies. The three networks most closely associated with Tennessee are The Nashville Network (TNN), Country Music Television (CMT), and Home and Garden Television (HGTV).

The Nashville Network was founded in 1983 in Nashville. Seeking to increase its profitability NLT, an insurance company, turned to the team that managed their radio station, WSM, most famous for its association with the Grand Ole Opry, to come up with a new business initiative. This team created the concept for TNN, a country lifestyle channel designed as a complement to the Grand Ole Opry, and was given permission and funds to proceed.

Later in 1983, American General Insurance took over NLT and subsequently sold all of the Opry holdings received as part of the acquisition, including the Opryland Hotel, the Opryland USA amusement park, WSM, and TNN, to Gaylord, a newspaper publishing company based in Oklahoma. Since the purchase, the subsidiary Gaylord Entertainment Company established its corporate headquarters in Nashville.

While under the leadership of Gaylord, TNN featured a general “country-style” programming, including talk shows, such as ones featuring Ralph Emery and Crook and Chase; Grand Ole Opry broadcasts; and country line dancing. The network acted as a magnification of southern culture, specifically that of Tennessee, helping to increase tourism in the state and, with the help of the name, to the city of Nashville.

Country Music Television, headquartered in Nashville, was founded in March 1983. At the time, MTV had been on the air for two years and had helped rock and pop music develop videos as polished marketing tools. Record companies did not see significant value in investing large sums of money in country music videos because the music had not yet developed its crossover potential and there was no venue for their display. As country music gained more fans, CMT took advantage of the influx and created that venue. The production values of the videos increased, CMT became more popular, and country music continued to gain new listeners. In 1991 Gaylord purchased CMT with the specific intention of positioning it as a complementary channel to TNN; the general manager of TNN became the president of CMT to streamline this process.

With similar motivations to that of CMT, Z Music Television (ZMTV) was founded in Florida in 1993 to showcase Christian music videos. The channel was already reaching 10 million homes by the time Gaylord purchased it in 1994. That purchase was made with the understanding that the growth would be slower than that of CMT. By 1995 ZMTV was reaching 17 million homes, and the company projected an audience of 30 million by the year 2000.

In 1997 CBS acquired TNN and CMT from Gaylord as part of a $1.5 billion purchase. This move reflected a broadcast network strategy to increase holdings on cable television, which was accounting for a larger portion of viewers. At the time of purchase from Gaylord, TNN and CMT were making a combined $321 million in advertising revenue. TNN reached 69 million homes, and CMT was received in 38 million homes.

Although CMT did not change much with the new owner and remains headquartered in Nashville, TNN went through significant changes. TNN began to depart from the traditional southern-style programming and incorporated more mainstream programming in an attempt to draw more viewers. Viacom purchased CMT and TNN from CBS in 2000. The headquarters for TNN were then relocated to New York City, and the network’s name changed to The National Network only four months after the purchase. This move also saw the president of nine years, David Hall, resign. The name change was a blow to both the previous owners of the network and the city of Nashville, which had enjoyed greater notoriety as a result of TNN. A former president of Gaylord Broadcasting, Tom Griscom, told the Nashville Tennessean on September 20, 2000, “I think it’s kinda [sic] sad. We had a good network. . . . Nothing lasts forever, which is unfortunate.” Another name change came for TNN in 2003; it is now known as Spike TV.

As part of the deal with CBS, Gaylord retained rights to the international branding of CMT and ownership of ZMTV; however, by 2000 the total households being reached by ZMTV had dropped to 8 million, well below the goal of 30 million. The company developed a new marketing strategy, rebranding their international CMT stations to MusicCountry, which would incorporate the music of the regions in which it was received, still including videos but also adding more scripted series, unscripted series, and specials. As part of this change, ZMTV was shut down with the option for current carriers to carry MusicCountry instead.

Home and Garden Television is headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. Although the network has offices in Nashville and five other cities and produces programs all around the country on location, company officials remain committed to retaining their roots in Knoxville. E. W. Scripps and Company founded and owns HGTV. Kenneth W. Lowe first pitched the concept for the network to the company in 1992. Scripps decided to invest, and in 1994 the network went on the air from its Knoxville headquarters to 6.5 million homes. Since its debut, the network has produced a variety of home-improvement shows, and their success has dramatically impacted other television networks’ programming decisions. HGTV shows provided the inspiration and the proof of concept for such cultural icons as “Trading Spaces” and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.” In October 2002 HGTV acquired the Nashville-based Shop At Home network as part of its expansion.

HGTV has recently found even more success, especially with such shows as Design Star, a reality competition program based on interior design. This success has, in turn, expanded their pool of advertisers, traditionally consisting of the home-improvement market, to include more and more mainstream advertising. As one of the most popular networks on cable television, HGTV is now the biggest revenue generator for E. W. Scripps and Company, accounting for 20 percent of its total profit. Although the network no longer produces programs from Knoxville, its operations center remains in the city. HGTV’s impact on Knoxville is so marked that the city declared November 19 as HGTV Day.

Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) films several of its programs from a complex in Hendersonville, north of Nashville in Sumner County. Founded in Tustin, California, in 1973, TBN is seen on more televisions than any other religious network. The network produces a wide variety of commercial-free programming that draws from the Pentecostal Christian tradition and depends on donations from their viewers for support. The programming provides a wide variety of functions for the viewers beyond entertainment, including fulfilling spiritual, psychological, social, and educational desires.

TBN’s complex in Hendersonville was the previous home of the late Conway Twitty. Prior to the purchase, it had been known as Twitty City and was a draw for his fans, offering tours and memorabilia. After Twitty’s death, the land was auctioned off, and TBN purchased it in 1994. Renamed “Trinity Music City, USA,” the property contains many of the original Twitty City buildings as well as a virtual-reality theater and a two-thousand-seat auditorium. Trinity Music City, USA now draws fans of TBN’s programming as well as fans of the late Conway Twitty.

In addition to enhancing the prestige of Tennessee and exposing the rest of the country to southern culture and heritage, the state’s cable television networks have become a part of the business and cultural landscape of the state.

Suggested Reading

Stephen Baker and Elizabeth Lesly, “Westinghouse Gets a Little Twang for Its Buck; Will Down-Home Nashville Cable be the Keystone CBS Needs?” Business Week, February 24, 1997; Karen Schoemer, “Television; On the Tube, Country Music Can’t Go Down-Home Again,” New York Times, February 9, 1992; Joseph Weber, “Housing Woes? Not at HGTV; The Home-Improvement Network Is Attracting New Viewers and Mass-Market Advertiser,” Business Week, September 17, 2007

Citation Information

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  • Article Title Tennessee Cable Television Networks
  • Author
  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 26, 2022
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018