The ACM Awards’ 50th anniversary edition will be the first awards show broadcast from a football stadium. Academy of Country Music CEO Bob Romeo details the differences going into this year’s edition, airing April 19 on CBS from Dallas’ AT&T Stadium, from previous years in Las Vegas and Universal City, Calif.
Any way to put a number on how much bigger a show this is?
As far as production, right now we’re tracking four times what it costs us to do the show in Las Vegas. Our big stage in Vegas? We’ve got two of those – same size – in addition to a thrust and seating we’re building. I don’t think people will understand the magnitude of this until they walk in and see it.
What logistical issues have you encountered?
One example: the rigging number is north of $2 million. That’s a lot of money. We lose two hours a day because it takes (a worker) a half-hour to get up to the ceiling, half-hour down for lunch, half hour down when their finished. They had to bring in special riggers because they’re working 350 feet in the air in a stadium that isn’t designed for theatrical shows so you don’t have a catwalk grid. If I’m in the building and I ask you to go get a wrench I forgot, I’m not going to see you for 40 minutes.
How does the size affect the way you shoot the show?
Everything we’re shooting is at angles so you don’t see the other stage as we darken it and set up (the next act). We’ve had to light stuff differently. No one’s ever done an awards show in a stadium so there’s no one to call and ask what should we be thinking of?
Why did you pick Texas and the home of the Dallas Cowboys?
We started talking about this six years ago after the (Cowboys owner Jerry) Jones family approached us about moving our event there for the grand opening of the building. That didn’t happen but the seed was thrown for our 50th. To move the show is a staggering amount of money. With the governor’s help and the Cowboys’ help we were able to lobby the state Senate and get named to the economic impact fund. When they built the stadium they created this fund, but it only applied to the six major sporting events, the Super Bowl, Final Four. We asked the Senate to name us to the bill and we had 100 percent support and they added us and the national Republican and Democratic conventions to the bill. Once that happened, then a host committee invited us.
Do you intend to blend historic elements in the show or keep it dedicated to what’s happening in commercial country music?
We went back to CBS and said, "It’s our 50th anniversary. Do we want to change the awards we give out?" They said, "You can’t. You have to honor people for the previous year’s work." That led to a series of internal discussions which led us back to CBS to ask if we could get an extra half hour? Short of the Grammys it’s pretty tough for the network to give you that half-hour, but Jack Sussman (executive vp, Specials, Music and Live Events, CBS Entertainment) and Les Moonves (president and CEO, CBS Corp.) agreed and gave us a 3-1/2 hour show, which gave our producer the ability to honor some acts.
How did you decide who to honor?
We narrowed it down to eight Milestone Awards. The Milestone recognizes artists who achieved significant milestones within the ACM Awards structure. We’re honoring Taylor (Swift) because she was our youngest person to win entertainer of the year back to back. Reba (McEntire) because she has hosted our show over three decades. We’re honoring Miranda Lambert for most decorated female. Brooks and Dunn hold the record for most wins with 27 trophies. We’re bringing back some or our greats – Martina McBride, Alan Jackson – and you’ll see a lot of references to previous (winners), people recognized in the crowd who have had a long history with the academy.
And you’re turning your third annual Party For Cause Festival, held the two days before the awards into a TV show, too.
It’s a 50th anniversary special Friday and Saturday at Globe Life Park with 35,000 people seeing pairings that have never been seen. Luke Bryan will sing with one of his idols, Ronnie Milsap, some of our young acts singing will be singing with Dwight Yoakam and Clint Black, Keith Urban with John Anderson. It’s the artist community showing respect to some of the pioneers in the business. It airs May 15.
Speaking of looking back, what are the moments that fans or people in the industry say are the show’s biggest moemnts in its history?
I think Carrie Underwood might hold two of the moments: The day she walked out on that stage with Steven Tyler and then when we did our Girls Night Out special, she sang with Vince Gill. When we did the rain thing with Taylor Swift (on "Should’ve Said No"), people still talk about that. (Producer) R.A. Clark strives to have one an hour. This year, I think we’re going to have two an hour.
You’ve done a dozen of these shows. Can you give a sense of how the ACM organization has changed in that time?
The other day at a board meeting the board was talking about how there is so much pride in how far we have moved the puck from 11 years ago. Back then we licensed our show to dick clark productions, got paid a nominal amount. We were at Universal Amphitheater, selling 3,000 tickets. When we considered the move to Vegas, that’s when the deals became different. We were terrified because we were going from 3,000 tickets to looking at 11,000 tickets. We got so scared, we made a deal with Mandalay Bay at 7,800 tickets. So we’ve gone from 7,800 tickets and being scared we couldn’t sell 11,000 at MGM to selling more than 100,000 tickets in Dallas. A lot of people used to think we did a lot of things behind closed doors and we’ve opened those doors, invited in the industry; I think we’ve become transparent. The board is so proud of our charity, Lifting Lives, and for something that is only 5 years old, we’ve helped so many people in the industry through the Diane Holcomb Emergency Fund. We’re supported the Country Music Hall of Fame expansion. I feel we’re able to give back because of the artists who have helped us. Every time we do a special, the money from ticket sales go to Lifting Lives. I think the board would probably say we’ve grown the franchise enough so the charity has started to make an impact in the community.
And edited version of this story originally appeared in the April 18th issue of Billboard.