ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT MUSIC Pop & Hiss

ACM and CMA square off in awards show showdown

Broad of shoulder and booming of voice, Bob Romeo is a memorable guy with a seemingly memorable job title: chief executive of the Academy of Country Music.

Based in Encino, it's one of that genre's two principal trade groups along with Nashville's Country Music Assn.; both seek to promote the style through concerts, festivals and, most visibly, televised award shows. But although they have their differences, the organizations are commonly known by acronyms — ACM and CMA — that can lead to confusion.

"I have members of my own family who think I work for the CMA," Romeo said recently. You can bet he's hoping to change that.

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On Sunday night, CBS will air the 49th ACM Awards, a three-hour extravaganza to be hosted by Blake Shelton and Luke Bryan with performances by many of country's biggest acts, including Brad Paisley, the Band Perry, Miranda Lambert and Florida Georgia Line.

The telecast follows last year's edition, which was watched by more than 15 million people, its strongest showing in more than a decade. More importantly, 2013 marked the first time the ACMs outdrew ABC's CMA Awards in the same television season since at least the late 1980s (when Nielsen began measuring audiences using so-called people meters).

In November, the CMAs set a high bar for the 2013-14 season by garnering 16.6 million viewers, deepening a ratings battle between the two programs. Asked about his target for Sunday's show, Jack Sussman of CBS laughed and said he's aiming for "a really big number."

He might get it. The rising tide that's lifting the ACMs and the CMAs isn't limited to country music; other performance-based awards shows are growing too. In January, the Grammys, music's premier TV event, drew 28.5 million viewers on CBS, up slightly from 2013.

MTV's Video Music Awards, with a hugely controversial, foam-finger-enhanced appearance by Miley Cyrus, soared 66% last August over 2012. Three months later, Cyrus helped boost the American Music Awards, on ABC, to its best ratings in four years.

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"Live events are alive and well and thriving on network television," Sussman said. "It's a big, hot business."

People involved in the shows point to a variety of reasons for their success, which despite similar saturation comes in contrast with the largely dwindling fortunes of TV's reality singing competitions. While NBC's "The Voice" remains a robust performer, viewership this season for Fox's once mighty "American Idol" have often fallen below 10 million viewers — a far cry from 2006 when more than 35 million tuned in to its finale. Also, "The X Factor" never lived up to huge expectations set by its star judge Simon Cowell, and after struggling for three seasons was canceled by Fox.

Yet if viewers have begun to tire of watching amateurs, they appear to have grown only more enthusiastic about watching established superstars, who are flocking to awards shows — even ones with far less prestige than the Grammys.

Last year, for instance, the Billboard Music Awards, on ABC, featured performances by Bruno Mars, Justin Bieber and the relatively reclusive Prince. And though the radio conglomerate Clear Channel hasn't announced who's to appear on its inaugural iHeartRadio Music Awards, set to air May 1 on NBC, the lineup is likely to be impressive, given the star-studded roster of the firm's annual iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas.

In an industry where record sales have been decimated by online streaming and illegal downloading, part of what these top-level acts are seeking is the kind of exposure that can help sell still-lucrative concert tickets.

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"You should take any chance you can get to perform for that huge TV audience," said Lambert, who's scheduled to join George Strait on Sunday for a tribute to Merle Haggard. The singer said award shows also offer opportunities for one-off collaborations, such as her duet with Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong on this year's Grammys.

"That introduces you to fans of other music who might not have heard of you," Lambert said. The ACMs will feature several other cross-genre pairings, including Lady Antebellum with Stevie Nicks and Blake Shelton with Shakira, the latter two of whom share a duet on her new album.

"Every booking is strategic," said Tom Corson, president of Shakira's label, RCA Records. "This felt like a natural extension of our campaign."

For the productions, these matchups also juice social-media chatter, encouraging viewers to tune in live — when they can't fast-forward through commercials — rather than watch later on DVR.

Cyrus' manager, Adam Leber, said that awards shows are "stepping their game up" in staging the kind of "event moments" in which his client specializes. "At one point the Grammys were getting pretty tired and uninteresting, but they've been smart lately about booking and programming," he said, adding that the payoff is clear: Must-see performances mean more viewers for a special, which means more desire among artists to appear on that special next year.

Wash, rinse, repeat.

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For the ACM's Romeo, such expansion is part of an overall plan to grow his organization ahead of its 50th anniversary next year. (He promises a "big announcement" Sunday regarding the 2015 show.)

He wants the ACM to offer more experiences for country music fans — golf tournaments, charitable endeavors, additional TV properties — and, of course, to deliver more consumers to his corporate sponsors.

He also wants to differentiate the ACM from the CMA, and if he can't call his flagship show "country music's biggest night" — that's the CMA's trademarked slogan — he'll settle happily for "country music's party of the year."

Broadcast from Las Vegas, where it takes over the MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay, the ACM special is "able to be a little less reverent" than the CMA Awards, held in "the mother church" of Nashville, Romeo said.

"At the end of the day, you don't go to someone's house because it's big," he added. "You go because you're gonna have fun."

CMA chief executive Sarah Trahern compared the two productions to the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes, with her show in the role of the more refined Oscars. Yet both leaders were quick to describe their events as being "outside the box," which suggests the desire of all in the award-show space to reach as many viewers as possible, never mind the competition.

Indeed, more than topping the CMAs' ratings, Romeo, with a background in concert promotion, claimed he's simply determined to capitalize on one of the few remaining mass audiences.

"Even if you're a big act doing 100 shows a year, with 12,000 people each, that's not a huge number compared to an appearance on one of these TV shows," he said. "Fifteen, 16 million people? That's just good for country music."

mikael.wood@latimes.com

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'The 49th Academy of Country Music Awards'

Where: CBS

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

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