Country Hopefuls Compete on Reality Show
By JOHN GEROME
Associated Press Writer
No one would accuse Travis Howard, a 33-year-old country music singer and contestant on the new reality TV show "Nashville Star," of being camera shy.
Howard earns his living performing in Los Angeles nightclubs and bars. But the reality aspect of "Nashville Star," a USA Network series that combines "Big Brother" with "American Idol," gives him butterflies.
"I'm completely in the hands of these editors," says Howard, a Georgia native with an accent rich as pecan pie. "And that scares me to death."
Howard and 11 other aspiring country stars moved into a fully wired house Wednesday on Nashville's famed Music Row where they'll live for nine weeks while competing for a Sony Music recording contract.
After the initial episode, which airs 9 p.m. EST Saturday, each of the next eight weekly shows is live, with cameras capturing the squabbles and friendships between the contestants as well as the weekly talent competitions at the Acuff Theatre next door to the Grand Ole Opry House.
Viewers vote by telephone or Internet for two hours after each show. The contestant with the least votes must leave.
"Access Hollywood" co-host Nancy O'Dell hosts the show; singer-songwriter Charlie Robison, husband to the Dixie Chicks' Emily Erwin Robison, music journalist Robert K. Oermann and Sony Music consultant Tracy Gershon will judge the contestants' performances.
At the end of the series, the winner gets the Sony contract with singer Clint Black producing the CD.
"This is the ultimate dream-maker show," said Ben Silverman, chief executive officer of Revielle, the production company that created "Nashville Star." "These are not 19-year-old beauties with their whole life in front of them. For some, this show is their last shot to make it."
The reality part of the show and the contestants' talent - the finalists were chosen from more than 8,000 contestants in local and regional competitions - set "Nashville Star" apart from similar shows, Silverman said.
He describes it as a tribute to a genre of music that is largely ignored on the East and West coasts.
"No one is eating bugs or running naked or getting screamed at," he said. "We're celebrating a truly American art form."
The contestants were drawn from different backgrounds and range in age from 19 to 33. There's an emergency dispatch operator from Kentucky, a farmer from Connecticut, a waitress from California and a Patsy Cline impersonator from New Mexico. All have one thing in common: They want to make it in the music business.
"My music is my focus," said 22-year-old Kristen Kissling, who quit her job as a preschool teacher in Austin, Texas, to move to Nashville for the series. "I don't see myself going back to teaching. I hope to get a band together or join an established band and make music my career."
Howard said he accepts that the show may reflect him in an unflattering way. He is willing to take the risk.
"Any chance to play is a good one," he said. "It's the one thing in life I can do really, really well."
Executive producer George Verschoor, who also produced and directed "The Real World," said one of the reasons Nashville and country music were chosen as the backdrop is because the fans are passionate about the music and the artists.
"They love to know the person behind the song," said Verschoor, who's been in Nashville since September preparing for the show. "They know their performers ... that's not always the case with actors and pop stars."
Country is also very hot. It was the only musical genre with a significant sales increase last year, growing 12.2 percent from 2001, according to Nielsen SoundScan's year-end music industry report.
Still, with the airwaves besieged by reality and talent-based series, "Nashville Star" is a gamble, said Robert Thompson, a professor of media and popular culture at Syracuse University.
Two dozen shows in a similar vein are in the works, he said.
"If TV history tells us anything, it is that there is a predictable trajectory," Thompson said. "First, there is a big hit in a new style. Then there is a huge movement to copy this stuff. Then it reaches saturation, there's a big shakedown and we reach equilibrium."
Thompson believes saturation is about here, with shows beginning to dilute one another.
"The value of winning any of these things becomes less and less," he said. "Everyone knew the name Richard Hatch (the first "Survivor" winner in summer 2000). Fewer know the winners now."