ABC's 'Nashville' Shoots For Ratings Boost With Concert Tour & Soundtrack
Esten, Palladino, Bowen: Bob D'Amico/ABC; Britton and Pannetiere: Mark Levine/ABC; "Nashville" album art: Big Machine Records

The drama has an imminent three-city concert tour and fourth soundtrack as ABC hopes to convert listeners into viewers

It’s a toss-up whether "Nashville" will return to Nashville.

Just two months ago, the hourlong soap set in country music’s epicenter appeared destined for cancelation — according to a source, crew members were informed they should look for work come May. Season-two ratings have steadily eroded since an audience of 6.5 million watched the Sept. 25 premiere. The show’s audience was 5.2 million on its last broadcast — March 26 — according to Nielsen. Its season average is 5.5 million.

But the lack of hits on ABC’s schedule has put "Nashville" on life support. And a source close to the production tells Billboard that the network “has invested heavily in the show” and that “by no means is it on its last legs.” A flurry of activity will close out the season for the Lionsgate-ABC-Opry Entertainment drama starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere, including a new soundtrack, a live tour and TV concert special.

In April and May, five of the show’s stars will perform in concerts in New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.; ABC will broadcast on April 23 a one-hour special, "Nashville: On the Record," taped March 29 at the historic Ryman Auditorium; and on May 6, Big Machine Records will release the series’ fourth soundtrack.

What’s driving it (besides the desire to push the show over the hump toward syndication)? A chance to develop a multimedia property. “We’ve always regarded this as an opportunity for a larger franchise beyond a scripted TV show,” says Steve Buchanan, a "Nashville" executive producer and president of Opry Entertainment Group, producer of the tour. The concert special and three-city trek offer “promotional and PR prospects that reflect the overall appeal of what we’re doing musically and beyond,” he adds. “It’s different in that we’re based on original music. It takes a little more time to establish but once you do, it’s a firmer foundation.”

The live show, featuring stars Charles Esten, Clare Bowen, Jonathan Jackson, Sam Palladio and Chris Carmack, hits New York with the aim of attracting Madison Avenue executives and media, as is the timing of Nashville’s events in aggregate. “We planned that the music special would take us into the last three episodes,” says Dawn Soler, senior vp TV music at ABC, who adds that the network’s commitment to the one-off broadcast has her believing the show will be picked up.

And she’s not alone. One insider tells Billboard that show creator Callie Khouri has recently bought a home in Nashville. Another points to the show’s performance in key demos: Among women 18-34 and women 18-49, "Nashville" is the No. 1 show in the Wednesday 10 p.m. hour, according to Nielsen data, drawing approximately 2 million in the age bracket “most important to advertisers.” Furthermore, in the 18-49 adults demo, "Nashville" does better than CBS’ "The Good Wife" (although worse than ABC shows that are likely to be canceled, such as "Mixology" and "Suburgatory").

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When it comes to "Nashville"’s musical component, few shows could compete. This season alone, the show will include performances of 64 new songs. "Glee," by comparison, uses about 150 songs in a season, though all are covers. It’s one reason the Bluebird Cafe, the historic real-life venue regularly featured on the show, is not only packed nightly, but the number of singers auditioning there has gone through the roof, as have T-shirt sales. The city’s Convention & Visitors Bureau took a survey late last year that found 20 percent of tourists cited "Nashville" as a “motivating factor” for their trip to Music City.

State and city officials estimate the show will have a $40 million impact on the city of Nashville this year, but key to the production filming in Tennessee were grants and tax incentives that put $13.5 million back into the show’s coffers — an arrangement that would likely continue should the series get a season-three pickup.

The answer should arrive just before the season-two finale airs May 14. ABC announces its fall lineup to advertisers at the network upfronts in New York on May 13.