ABC’s “Nashville” poses a viewership riddle

When it comes to ABC’s critically acclaimed drama “Nashville,” ABC Entertainment President Paul Lee has an uncommon complaint for a network suit:

“We don’t have enough older women watching the show,” Lee said this week during the Television Critics Assn. convention in Pasadena.

“Nashville” has presented ABC with a knot. Created by Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), the Wednesday night drama about the cutthroat worlds of country music and local politics has not produced the level of viewer applause that the Walt Disney Co.-owned network had hoped.


“Nashville” has averaged 8.12 million viewers an episode, according to Nielsen data. That’s a respectable sized audience -- but short of expectations. So when ABC began slicing the numbers, executives uncovered fascinating findings that run counter to network viewership trends.

Nearly half of the “Nashville” audience are viewers in the advertiser-preferred category of 18- to 49-year-olds. Most surprising to ABC, about a third of that segment are young women between the ages of 18 and 34.

So strong in the women 18- to 34-year-old demographic, “Nashville” is tied with NBC’s “Revolution” for the bragging rights as the No. 1 new show among young women. The program also has one of the highest rates of digital recording, with DVR playbacks adding nearly 3 million additional viewers to its live viewing numbers.

Women over 35 historically are the most loyal audience for network dramas -- but they are in far shorter supply for “Nashville,” leading to Lee’s unusual complaint.

ABC has been trying to figure out what’s going on, and theories abound. The show features Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”) and Hayden Panettiere (“Heroes”), two talented actresses who developed their own followings during their previous shows’ runs on NBC.

ABC executives had expected that Britton, who plays an aging country music megastar in a flawed marriage, would help draw in women in their 30s and 40s. But Panettiere, who plays a brash rising musician who craves acceptance, might have been a more potent lure. After all, at its peak “Heroes” attracted about 16 million viewers an episode, while “Friday Night Lights” was more of a cult favorite. The latter’s highest-rated telecast, in October 2006, drew 8.3 million viewers.

And then there are the politics of country music. Lee said ABC research showed that some women in their 40s and 50s who grew up favoring rock bands like U2 and Bon Jovi might be more snobbish when it comes to country music.

There is no such stigma among younger viewers, who quickly warmed to country stars Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood. (NBC’s hugely popular “The Voice” features Blake Shelton, another country star, who has become a favorite among viewers.)

Younger women also might be more drawn to the on-screen fight between Britton’s character, Rayna Jaymes, and Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes. This is, after all, the cohort that embraced MTV’s “Real World,” and “Jersey Shore,” and Bravo’s “Real Housewives of Orange County.”

“We were thrilled to see some strong millennial numbers for ‘Nashville,’ the 18 to 34 numbers, but we really want to build those 35 to 49 numbers as we go through the season, and you’ll see us doing that as we support that show,” Lee said.


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