Robert Deaton is a very busy man. As executive producer of the CMA Awards, Deaton is preparing for the 48th Annual CMA Awards live on ABC Wednesday night (Nov. 5) from Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. On Friday, he’ll tape CMA Country Christmas to air on ABC Dec. 1. Hosted by Jennifer Nettles, the show is also held at Bridgestone before a live audience, and will include performances from Brad Paisley, Steven Tyler, Carrie Underwood, Idina Menzel, Michael W. Smith, Little Big Town, Sara Evans and others.
Deaton has served as executive producer of the CMA Awards since 2007 and also produces CMA Music Festival: Country Music’s Night to Rock, an annual ABC special airing in August. The veteran producer/director rose to prominence in Nashville as a partner in Deaton-Flanigen Productions, where he won two CMA video of the year awards for Martina McBride‘s “Independence Day” in 1994 and Brooks & Dunn‘s “Believe” in 2006. Deaton has also won a Clio and two Emmy Awards for the Monday Night Football campaign. His credits include Sports Illustrated: 50 Years of Beautiful on NBC as well as TV specials for superstars Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney.
“Robert was the first person to give us an opportunity on an award show,” says Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley of the trio’s CMA Awards debut. “We were still brand-new. It wasn’t like we were the hottest thing out there.”
Adds Lady Antebellum’s Hillary Scott, “He’s believed in us from the beginning. . . One of my favorite things about him is he has such a long list of accomplishments he’s done and built from the ground up. He’s taken things to a whole other level. And the first thing he’ll do when you talk to him is brag on his kids, which says so much about him.”
Deaton gives Billboard a behind-the-scenes look at Wednesday night’s show and what viewers can expect.
It was my idea to put them together in the first place. What I think that makes it great is that they have genuine chemistry. They’re friends. That’s the difference. When you think about all the great duos like Sonny and Cher, when they were doing their TV show, and some of the television shows of the ’70’s, like [Laugh-In‘s Dan] Rowan and [Dick] Martin, there was chemistry. The shows were funny and they were witty and clever — and we feel like that’s what we are at the CMA Awards, but it’s the chemistry between the two of them is what, I think, makes it over-the-top successful.
How do you decide who performs on the show?
For the performers, what I look for first is the nomination. It’s the award that everyone wants to win. From the time they’re little kids, they aspire to be on that stage to accept that award. We have to take that extremely seriously. The first thing that I do is I look at the nominations and draw from that. . .When we make those offers, we look at, ‘Okay, what is something unique? What’s something that we can put on here that has not been seen? What’s an artist collaboration that would create lots of discussion and talk?’ This year we’re putting Miranda Lambert and Meghan Trainor together, and Ariana Grande and Little Big Town. Those are combinations that you would not normally think of — something different, something out of the box. . . Then, of course, you want to look at our biggest superstars and put our best foot forward. For example, Kenny [Chesney] has not done the show in two years. He’s come back with a fabulous album and his first single, “American Kids,” was just fresh and new, and so Kenny will be on the show. It’s just about looking at the balance. But the most important thing is for the performance we look at the nominations.
In Meghan’s case that came together pretty organically. She’s from Nashville. She’s got two songs on Rascal Flatts’ new record. I thought it’d be fun to have her on the show. She wanted to perform with Miranda because Miranda was the first artist that she knew of that had commented on the song [“All About That Bass”] and how much she liked it, and what a fan she was. It came from that. We reached out to Miranda. She’s like, ‘Absolutely! I love it!’ So we put that performance together.
What do you look for in booking presenters?
There’s a balance of people from our genre and people outside the genre. It’s also an opportunity to put someone on stage that has a respect for the music, but it’s also an opportunity to have a surprising moment, like ‘Wow! I didn’t expect him to be there!’ For example, P. Diddy last year. That’s a moment where he came in, was incredibly respectful, wanted to meet everybody. There are opportunities to create something that’s unexpected.
When it comes down to who people see that night is that your decision alone or is there a committee making decisions?
It’s my decision as far as who’s going to be performing and what song they’re going to sing, and who the presenters are. Because once the nominations come out, things happen so fast and furious you literally don’t have time to have a committee meeting and have committees decide these things. But what I do is, I do lean heavily on my chairman and co-chairman of the TV committee. I talk to at least one of them every day, sometimes multiple [times], just to bounce ideas and get information. I’m also a slow mover when it comes to who we’re putting on the show, so I analyze it, think about it, I sleep on it for days, just making sure that we get the right performance, and it’s at the right time in the show.
When do you start writing the script?
We started getting together to write the opening monologue about two months ago. It’s myself, David Wild, our head writer, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley. We’re constantly refining. We really do try to stop and end the process the night before the award show. Three years ago, we were changing the script 20 minutes before the air. That was pretty crazy backstage. It was the year Hank Williams Jr. made a guest appearance. Literally they had not even met Hank before the show. It was ten minutes before the show, we rushed him into Carrie’s dressing room. We bring Hank in and we talked about what was going to go down. There was no rehearsal on any of that that we did. All that happened the first time when you saw it live on television. We literally changed the teleprompter 3 ½ minutes before air time. That was a little crazy. We don’t like doing that. We like being finished at least the night before so that it can get settled in and Carrie and Brad can get settled in.
What’s been one of your most anxiety-ridden moments and how did it work out?
The whole show is trying to get to time. Trying to end that show on time, it’s like taking this huge ship and trying to get it into dock on time. I’m constantly shortening things or lengthening things and most of the time we’re overtime. When Brad won entertainer of the year [in 2010], I was way under. I had like two minutes and 30 seconds, which is an eternity in television. You can’t end early. We had nothing else prepared. No music. I went up to Brad and said, “Brad, I’m two minutes and 30 seconds under time.” He talked for two minutes and 30 seconds, and we got off again on time. He came back with his entertainer of the year award in hand and said, “How’d I do? Did I do good for you?” and I’m like, “Absolutely. Thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you!”
Are there too many awards shows on television?
Yes. I feel like there are too many award shows. I’m not just saying that for the country music genre, of which there are four now. It becomes harder and harder to have anything unique. . . It’s not just our shows. There are now multiple movie awards. There’s multiple pop awards. You have the Billboard Music Awards, the MTV Awards, and the Grammys. It seems like every week there’s some type of an award show. People want to see live events, so it’s become a prime focal point for all the networks, but just like anything else — eventually the audience is going to erode. I’m afraid with so many live events that that could possibly happen. But at the same time I can’t worry about that. I just have to put blinders on and make the CMA Awards the best that I can possibly make it and be authentic that who we are as a music genre, and also create balance in the show that a broad audience wants to tune in.
What differentiates the CMA Awards from other award shows?
One thing that sets us apart is longevity. The CMA was the first association to serve one genre of music. Another thing that sets this show apart is that we’re voted on by industry members, so the people that sitting out there — Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton, Little Big Town, all those artists are voted upon by their peers — it’s their peers saying, “You know what? We loved your album.” That’s important. From a visual standpoint to the audience, what sets us apart is Brad and Carrie. With Brad and Carrie out there, you know what show it is. That’s very important to us right now especially since are so many award shows. And also the presentation of the music — we really strive hard to give each performer their own mini concert. We go to great strides to make individual performance different, where everything just doesn’t look the same.
What is the biggest consideration when you’re making the decisions for the show? Is it ratings? Is it perception of the genre?
Ratings drive everything. You have to look at that. Ratings have to be a decision-maker, but at the same time, I feel when you are part of the integral fabric of something, which we are to country music, just like the Grammys are to pop music, we’re held to a little bit of a higher standard towards, not just a better rating, but also serving what’s right. Sometimes doing what’s right is not necessarily always going to get you a rating, but I feel like because of the importance of the show, we need to have balance. For example, three years ago we did the tribute to Glen Campbell. I did not know whether that was going to rate or not. It did, but no matter whether that particular moment rated or not did not matter. What mattered is we honored a great artist, and acknowledged what he was going through [Alzheimer’s]. That was more important than the rating at that point. We have to make sure that those moments that still happen within this award show because of the history of the awards and what it means to this genre.
You also produce CMA Music Festival: Country’s Night to Rock and CMA Country Christmas, which both air on ABC. How does producing the awards show differ from those specials? Is it all about putting on a great concert or is there a big shift as you do each of those properties?
The awards are the hardest. The awards are like a variety show. We do so much. We do performances, but we also do comedy. There’s the opening monologue, and there’s a lot going on, plus the stakes are higher. People want to be on this show. People want to be in the festival too, but it’s a whole different thing. The CMA Awards nominations come out in September and it’s a sprint. We’ve got to run really fast in a very short amount of time. The festival is four days and it’s a marathon. So, it’s different. It’s a marathon, but we get started in August, pushing it. I get started in January booking it. We load in. We shoot for four days. There’s no awards. There’s no opening monologues. It’s about putting the pedal to the medal.
Any special moments coming this year that you are particularly excited about?
There’s going to be a surprise guest in one of our performances from one of the biggest legends of country music of all time. I’ll just leave it at that. It’s going to be a great moment when people are going to want to get out their phones.
What makes you the perfect guy for this gig?
I don’t know if I’m the perfect guy. I don’t know if I can make that statement, but I will say that I grew up, since I was eight years old, going backstage sneaking into Mr. Acuff’s dressing room at the Grand Ole Opry, sitting in the corner, listening to the music. Whenever we were in Nashville, we’d go to the Opry and I loved it. I grew up in North Carolina and my father had a country music television show every Friday night. I would get to meet and hang out with Buck Owens, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jack Green and Jeannie Seely. And then I studied music. I think because of that I can relate to the artists really well. The love of the music is what I have first. I’m so fortunate to be able to be connected to music in some way. That’s important to me and it’s been a part of me since I was little. I don’t feel like I’m here by accident.
What do you hope people take away from the show? When it’s over, what do you hope you will have accomplished?
I just hope people have fun. I hope it runs a range of emotion. I hope they see great performers and have all the feelings a great movie would have; where it’s funny and there’s great intimate moments. I just want just want to put on a show, entertaining people and [have them] just come out of there saying, ‘That was great! There was so much thought put into it.’ That’s what we want to do.