Casting Crowns frontman Mark Hall leads the list of nominees for the 39th annual Gospel Music Assn. Dove Awards. Hall earned six nominations, among them male vocalist and a song of the year nod for "East to West." His band, Casting Crowns, received four nominations including artist and group of the year. The Clark Sisters, tobyMac, Natalie Grant, Point of Grace, Chris Tomlin and Skillet round out the ballot in the artist of the year category.

This year the GMA expanded several key categories -- artist, male and female vocalist, new artist and group -- to seven nominees. "We upped the ante on the five big ones to seven nominations instead of five," Michael W. Smith told Billboard.biz after announcing this year's nominees during a press conference at Lowes Vanderbilt Plaza in Nashville. "We really are diverse and we're a lot more diverse than past Dove Awards have portrayed. That's not a slam. I just think taking the nominations from five to seven in those categories is a good thing."

This year's Doves will have a new television home on the Gospel Music Channel. "It's a perfect marriage," Smith says of the GMA partnering with GMC. "That channel is destined for greatness. They are doing such a great job. The viewership continues to go up. It's a no-brainer."

The multi-year year agreement begins with the 2008 Doves, which will be broadcast live on April 23 from Nashville's Grand Ole Opry House. GMC has committed to multiple additional airings of the program as well as developing other programming around the awards show such as a new series leading up to the event, "The Road to the Doves."

“We think it's the biggest night for gospel and Christian music fans in all of television," says Charles Humbard, founder and president of the Gospel Music Channel. "The Dove Awards celebrate all styles, much like the Gospel Music Channel. We share very similar mission and values with them and we feel like the premiere night for gospel and Christian music fans should be on the premiere channel for gospel and Christian music fans."

GMA president/CEO John Styll also sees the two entities as very compatible. "The programming philosophy of the Gospel Music Channel is very similar to the GMA philosophy," says Styll. "Any kind of faith-based music regardless of the style is what the GMA embraces and that's what the Gospel Music Channel embraces. They define gospel as anything from contemporary Christian to a black choir to a southern quartet to a punk band. So does the GMA, so there's a good editorial fit. [GMC's] audience understands what the Dove Awards is all about and so it makes a natural home."

Both GMA and GMC represent all the styles that fall under the gospel/Christian music umbrella. "The power of this channel is the diversity of this channel," says Humbard. "We like to say five styles, one message."

The last time the Doves aired live was in 2002 on the PAX network. In recent years, the program has aired in syndication. "It's been hard staying in one place. Networks change. The PAX Network is a different network now. The Family Channel is a different network now. TNN is a different network now," Styll says. "Networks change their programming philosophies and formats. I think we're a little bit of a square peg in a round hole in some ways and we're aware that this is a very different kind of show for most networks to air. It's a challenge."

GMC seems a perfect fit. Launched in October 2004, the network is the first and only 24/7 network devoted to gospel/Christian music. According to Humbard, the network will be in 45 million homes by the end of this year, and is the fastest-growing cable network. Comparable to CMT, MTV, VH1, GAC and other music driven channels, GMC offers Christian/gospel music fans a place to see both the genre's established and up and coming talent.

Industry insiders are pleased that the show will be live this year, offering greater visibility and better marketing opportunities. "Unlike years past, no one is going to know who won until they watch. An award show needs the drama," says Humbard. Since the awards were previously syndicated, media attending the show announced the winners prior to the show's airing.

The Dove Awards are the centerpiece of GMA Music Week, the gospel/Christian industry's annual gathering, which is populated with seminars, showcases, and workshops for radio, retail, labels, agents, promoters and other involved Christian/gospel music. Styll says there are plans to further raise the profile of the Dove Awards this year with additional activities. There will be an opportunity for media to cover arrivals, similar to red carpet events at other awards shows. GMA will also be hosting a party after the awards for Dove attendees.

The American Bible Society has signed on as the presenting sponsor for the 39th annual Dove Awards as well as the designated charity of the event. Plans call for additional Dove sponsors to be announced in coming weeks.

For the full list of Dove nominees click here.

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