Robert Deaton: Getting Awards Show Ratings
A candid and in-depth look into Robert Deaton’s journey from playing on a local country music television show in North Carolina at age six to becoming the Executive Producer of the CMA Awards television special. Originally published in the 2012 MusicRow Awards print issue.
Robert Deaton is a lucky man. His two career dreams have come true—to work in film/TV and contribute to country music. He’s insanely busy and has won hundreds of awards, but his relaxed manner instantly puts others at ease. When Deaton starts talking about work, his enthusiasm and excitement makes it clear he loves what he does.
Currently Deaton is Executive Producer for the CMA’s Awards, Music Festival and Country Christmas shows on ABC, plus the new TV singing competition Duets. He and business partner George Flanigen have also created numerous music videos for an impressive list of artists through their company Deaton Flanigen Productions.
In spite of Deaton’s numerous accomplishments he started this interview by recalling how his company got its first major country music video assignment. “George and I incorporated in 1985,” he says. “MusicRow magazine reviewed a video we did with Eddie DeGarmo and said, ‘Deaton Flanigen, Nashville’s best kept secret.’ After reading the review and seeing the video, James Carlson from Columbia called AristoMedia’s Jeff Walker and asked ‘Who are these guys?’ That perfect storm resulted in us doing a major country music video and got things rolling.”
The CMA Awards remain, however, Deaton’s most influential annual time block with respect to country music. The impact of those three hours on the radio and SoundScan charts, the TV networks, with media gatekeepers and inside Music Row boardrooms is intense. What follows is the story of how Deaton rose to this position of trust in 2007 and the numerous decisions which it requires him to make when considering artists, presenters, hosts and ratings…
MR: How did your journey to becoming Executive Producer of the CMA Awards start?
Robert: It began with being asked to chair the CMA TV committee. Lon Helton was President of the organization that year and felt I would get along well with Walter Miller (CMA Awards Producer) and be able to interact with him from a creative standpoint in a way no other chair had been able to do. The previous year I co-chaired the TV committee with Paul Corbin. You have to understand that just being around all these brilliant people on the CMA Board was amazing and to chair anything was a great opportunity, especially the TV committee. I was still pretty much a stranger to corporate structure (i.e. how to run a committee) and had a big learning curve. So I became the TV Chairman and Walter Miller taught me a great deal about TV. I tried to soak up everything.
MR: But being Chairman of the TV committee is a long way from producing the CMA awards, right?
Robert: I looked at CMA leaders like Joe Galante, Tim DuBois, Lon Helton, Mike Dungan, Luke Lewis, you [David Ross] and Jeff Walker. Everyone had their area of expertise and I kept thinking, “But what can I contribute? How can I make my mark within the organization?” I wanted to create a TV broadcast for the CMA Music Festival. It had been tried in the past, but not strategically. With the blessing of the TV committee, and my own money, I shot B-roll at the CMA music festival. It had already moved to the new stadium. I put together a six-minute pitch piece to show CBS with graphics, sound design and interviews. Attorney Joel Katz got me a meeting with Les Moonves in Los Angeles. I told him, “I could tell you what it is, but let me show you what it really is.” So I played the piece for him and held my breath. After it was over Les looked at me and said, “I totally get this. Let’s do it.” And that’s how we sold the first year.
MR: That had to be like winning an award! But now you had to follow through and create a show.
Robert: Yes, it was “mission accomplished,” but it was also just beginning. The TV committee sent me back to LA to find a producer and director for the new show. On that trip I met Gary Halvorson who became our Director and still directs the music festival to this day. Gary is brilliant, with tons of experience and a deep love of music. I returned to Nashville and reported to CMA Executive Director Ed Benson and TV Co-chair Larry Fitzgerald, “I’ve found a director, but not a producer yet.” Larry changed my life because he said, “I have a problem.” “What do you mean?” I asked. “This isn’t fair,” said Larry. “You came up with the idea, shot the video, went to LA and then sold it. You should produce it.” That was the very first time I thought about producing it. A week later Larry repeated his comment to the committee. I said, “I’ve never done this before, but for this one moment I want to take off my CMA cap and put on my personal hat. I’ve never asked anything personally, but if you deem it’s appropriate and feel I can do the job, I’d like to be considered.” So I left the room and they voted. When I returned I had been named Producer. I called Gary Halvorson and off we went.
MR: That must have been a heart pounding afternoon.
Robert: Yes, but then the hard work began. The first few years for the festival show were rough because it was this huge TV elephant. I was determined to make great TV and therefore part of the festival culture had to be changed. It rocked the boat, but slowly and surely we got there.
MR: Flash forward a couple of years. CMA decided they needed someone in place to take over from Walter someday and that person was you.
Robert: Walter and I had become very close, so I had his blessing. The first year I was Consulting Producer. The second year they upped me to Producer, which was the best of all worlds. I was still working under Walter and doing what I love most, the creative. Walter and I approach things differently. I came from film so I’m really about the presentation, whereas he produces more from a director’s point of view because he began as a broadcast director. For example, Walter was more into the artist staging, where they’re going to perform, walk to and how the movement works within the song. I was more about lighting and set design. So we were great together. The next year the CMA asked me to take over even more of the producing responsibility, still with Walter’s approval.
MR: Sharing Walter’s experience and knowledge must have been like a graduate course in TV?
Robert: It was great. I had all the fun and Walter had all the pressure because he was the one having to decide who was going to be on the show. All the really hard decisions, which I do now, he was doing at that time. And by the way, he was simply amazing. When I finally transitioned to Executive Producer, about five years ago, Walter became Consulting Producer and is to this day. That’s when I got the pressure and the phone calls that come with the job.
MR: What about the nuts and bolts decisions like choosing hosts?
Robert: Brooks and Dunn hosted the year before I became Executive Producer but decided they didn’t want to do it again. ABC suggested a no-host approach kind of like the Grammy model which we did that first year. For the second year I wanted a host. “Who are you thinking about?” ABC asked. I absolutely wanted Brad and Carrie. Everyone said, “Well, Brad will be great,” and I replied, “Carrie Underwood is the last person you need to worry about.” Carrie had hosted some CMA Music Festival segments I had produced and she was great, it was like a light turned on. I didn’t push it, but I knew I was going to bring it back up. Later, I went to the TV committee and said, “This is who I’m thinking of and why.” Brad’s a great player, singer and represents the traditional side, but he’s also a comedian and the way he thinks is left of center. Carrie, with her pop culture/American Idol following represents the contemporary side. She’s beautiful, well spoken and also an amazing talent. I knew these two would have chemistry together as our hosts. But honestly, they are unbelievable together and have completely exceeded everyone’s expectations. And here’s another thing we were missing out on. Without a host, there’s no focus point to do the heavy media lifting. We didn’t have someone that could talk to People magazine and Entertainment Weekly and all the newspapers and radio stations and do the promos. We missed out on that for a year. So I went back to ABC expecting a fight, but after I laid it all out, they said, “No, we get it now. You should do that.” And that’s how we ended up with Brad and Carrie.
MR: What’s great about an inspired choice is after the fact everyone says, “Yeah—no brainer.” What about some of the other pressures that come with wearing the Executive Producer hat?
Robert: There’s booking, site surveys, design, lots of things, but hands down the most fun part is creating ideas for the artists, the song presentations and interacting with Brad and Carrie. That’s a blast. The hardest part is booking the show and having to tell someone they are not getting a slot. We always book the Entertainer Of The Year nominees, but then the question is, what will make the best TV show? Every year there are more than 20 artists that have a valid story and good reasons to be on the show. I agonize over the process because the artists are depending on me. There’s only two weeks out of the year I can’t sleep and it’s during the CMA awards. I called Luke Lewis, Joe Galante and Mike Dungan for advice because they are in similar pressurized positions. They all said the same thing— “It will never get any easier, you have to live with it.” Dungan also said, “Frankly, I hope booking the show never gets any easier for you, because if it does it means you don’t care anymore.” So I’ve always remembered their advice, this is supposed to be difficult. But once we know who is on the show we start listening to the music and it all turns to fun.
MR: What about those special, never-before-seen TV moments?
Robert: Those pairings are usually very organic. Over time you learn that certain things work. For example, a hit song with a superstar artist will always make a big rating. An unknown song with a superstar artist can produce a good rating, but nothing like combining Taylor Swift with a hit song, or the year we had Kid Rock singing “All Summer Long.” And then there are certain songs that transcend, like “Believe” with Brooks and Dunn. We’re always looking to somehow create new pairings plus give a nod toward where we came from, like the Glen Campbell tribute this past year. I was proud of that on a lot of different levels. At first I was going to have Keith Urban on guitar, very intimate at the front of the stage. I was home one night listening to Glen’s records and asking myself, “Have I chosen the right songs?” when I realized these are some of the best records of all time, they sound so good. So I called my Music Director Steve Gibson and said, “I want to do them exactly like the record, full strings, everything. It needs to be done that way.” Then I found a past clip of Glen performing “Gentle On My Mind” on the CMA Awards. So I thought we’ll start the segment cold with Glen and then move to our guys. I still needed someone to host the segment, to come out and talk about Glen. Ultimately, instead of one host, we decided to have each artist—Vince, Keith and Brad—say a little something about Glen. I started getting chill bumps and knew we had it right. It was a long, eight minute segment which is an eternity in TV, but our ABC partners believed the tribute was the right thing to do and never asked me to cut out even a second. That was really cool.
MR: Brad and Carrie’s opening is one of everyone’s favorite segments. How does it come together?
Robert: This past year we got together at Brad’s house in Pacific Palisades earlier than usual, about 3 months out front of the show and started with general pop culture ideas. We’ve discovered that nothing is too old for us to use, even if it happened in the beginning of the year. Why? Because the Awards are like country’s annual corporate meeting and this “speech” is about everything that happened throughout the year. For example, six months before the awards I read that Tim and Faith were coming out with dolls and knew we’d want to use them somehow. One thing we don’t want to do is hurt anybody’s feelings. We want to be funny, playful, but not be hurtful. Over time we’ve defined and refined Carrie and Brad’s roles. It’s ok for Brad to do something stupid, but it’s not ok for Carrie to act like Brad is stupid. Like when Brad got the songs mixed up between Lady Gaga and Lady Antebellum, “Oh I love them,” and starts singing a Gaga song. Carrie is the one who, like the mom says, “Brad you sweet thing, that’s not Lady Antebellum that’s Lady Gaga.” Brad comes with a million ideas and Carrie will maybe not say anything for a half hour in a writer’s meeting and then will say the absolute thing that we should do, plus Carrie’s comedic timing is perfect. She knows to wait in the beat after Brad does something crazy. We’re so fortunate with both of them. So we start generalizing and eventually narrow it down to about six minutes. Creatively, it is the hardest thing we do and it changes right up until we air.
MR: Picking presenters?
Robert: One viewpoint is we should only book presenters from within the country genre. Some people don’t want presenters coming in from LA—TV or movies. My opinion is we need to be as broad as possible. If we can get Hugh Jackman or Reese Witherspoon we absolutely should. People sometimes only think about those three show hours, but I also have to think about getting us press. If I release that Gwyneth Paltrow—one of the biggest rated portions of our show over the last several years—is going to perform or be on the show we land in People magazine, Entertainment Weekly and every newspaper across the country. We cannot buy that kind of publicity and we need it to create awareness. Booking Paltrow to sing “Country Strong” met so many things in my criteria, it was the perfect storm. I had 25 phone calls from LA congratulating me on that booking because they understood how big it was. It also gave me something to promote for the last half hour of the show to help keep the ratings up. Maintaining ratings during the last half hour, and especially the final 15 minutes is almost impossible even though that is when the Entertainer is revealed. So in the last couple of years we’ve tried to develop strategies to keep viewers from leaving.
MR: Do you know the winners in advance?
Robert: I never know who the winners are, even during the show and don’t want to know. I’ll take a polygraph test on it. I would never criticize Walter, but sometimes he was too good at guessing who was going to win. He’d have someone perform and they’d win an award right afterwards and it looked like he knew. It happened to me once with Lady Antebellum. But usually there are lots of big surprises which work great for television. The first year Blake Shelton won Male Vocalist he was surprised and I was too. It was well deserved, but when he stomped up those steps it was like he was saying, “I’m living every moment of this, going up these steps one at a time and grabbing my place.” There is no better TV than those unscripted kinds of moments. I just have to make sure I capture them when they happen. I have to be able to say, I’ve arranged everything the best I possibly can, now let’s see what else happens.
MR: You’re like a party planner. You provide the guest list, create some party games and then hope the guests have a good time.
Robert: Exactly. I’ll run the show schedule with my directors, and we’ll discuss things like where the standing ovations might happen. For example, I carefully selected a list of audience people to shoot during the Glen Campbell segment so we could see their reactions while watching the tribute to this legendary performer. But every year something surprises us. I’m only as good as the artists we have on the show and the songs they are performing. With each performance I let the songs tell us what to do and try to see that the artist wins. Sometimes I’ll spend a lot of money on a set like I did last year with Blake and the dancers, other times I can showcase Reba with a spotlight and have her just sing a great song.
MR: This event’s importance cannot be overestimated. It’s the format’s most visible moment. Do you appreciate the magic you are helping to create?
Robert: You have to understand something about my background. When I was six years old I was on a local country music television show in North Carolina as a bit player. I grew up around Jack Greene and Jeannie Seely. I remember being in an empty classroom with Ray Pillow, a member of the Grand Ole Opry thinking the coolest thing I’d ever seen was the gold velvet in his guitar case! I met Jerry Lee Lewis backstage in one of those gymnasiums where they used to play and shook his hand when I was only seven. He was sitting in a chair with a big ole cigar and no shirt on. I remember hanging back stage with Buck Owens and know what it feels like, what it smells like to be in that room with Buck Owens. When I get stressed I pull out my favorite record and sit and listen to it—Buck Owens Live From Carnegie Hall. It got to the point where I was at the Grand Ole Opry so much I could call Mr. Bell, the security guard at the time, and just say “Hi, I’m coming down.” And he’d let me backstage. I’d sneak in the back corner of Roy Acuff’s dressing room and see all of them in a circle talking and playing.
Knowing that as my background, you can understand why it was such an unbelievable feeling for me when I got through my first show as the TV Chairman. That show was the first time that I felt I’d contributed to something that really made a difference in our genre. Look around my room at the albums I listen to—music from Jim Reeves, Ronnie Milsap and Jerry Reed. I’m not in this business by accident. I love this music, the genre and being part of this community and it runs deep from when I was a kid.
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