Grand Ole Opry’s Circle Network Joins Four Big Video-Streaming Platforms

Circle Network, a country music channel co-owned by the Grand Ole Opry’s parent company and station group Gray Television, said it has signed distribution deals with four big streaming platforms: Roku, Samsung’s TV Plus, Vizio’s SmartCast, and Comcast-owned Xumo.

The four outlets collectively claim 76 million monthly average users, and represent a big jump in audience accessibility for the 10-month-old network, said Circle’s General Manager Drew Reifenberger. Opry Entertainment Group, a subsidiary of Ryman Hospitality Properties, is a co-owner of the network with Gray, one of the nation’s biggest broadcast station groups.

The channel has been anchored by Saturday night broadcasts of performances on Opry Live from the Grand Ole Opry’s storied stage in Nashville, Tenn., continuing even through the pandemic’s strictures, though without live audiences.

The Opry “has had shows, with no audience, for 32 weeks now,” Reifenberger said. “The Opry is going on 95 years of uninterrupted Saturday night broadcasts, coming up on 5,000 performances and we’re not going to break that. We’re the only ones with original content every week, particularly in the early stages (of the pandemic). That’s what the Opry is all about.”

For all the rich tradition of those hour-long performances, however, Reifenberger said the Circle Network was built to appeal to country music’s Millennial and Gen Z audiences, who now make up about half the nation’s population.

“The why of creating this channel was simple research,” Reifenberger said. “There are 120 million country music fans who simply are being underserved. We think it’s very much about the lifestyle as much as it is about the music. It’s a platform to bring artists and the audiences closer together.”

To feed those audiences, the channel has 16 original or exclusive shows, then pieces in licensed movies and other programming to fill out its schedule.

“We’ve got to build it for today’s audiences, but future-proof it for tomorrow,” Reifenberger said.

Additional original programming includes Circle Sessions, Phil Vassar’s Songs from the Cellar, Hee Haw, Upstream with Elizabeth Cook, Authentic America, The Dailey & Vincent Show, The Southern Weekend, and Circle’s Classic Westerns Night.

The channel had built up considerable production backlogs of programming before the pandemic hit, which helped it through the lockdown’s first few months. Now Circle has to create more content for the months ahead to appeal to fans on its new distribution platforms such as Roku’s free, ad-supported service.

 “Every day, our goal is to make The Roku Channel experience even better for our users,” said Ashley Hovey, Roku’s Director of AVOD Growth. “With the launch of Circle, we’re bringing great, free ad-supported country music and lifestyle content to our users. We’re very excited to help grow Circle’s audience with The Roku Channel’s very engaged users.”

The latest streaming distribution deals give the network a foothold on some of the biggest ad-supported and on-demand online-video platforms in the country. Reifenberger pointed out that the Xumo slot also means the channel will be available on owner Comcast’s XFinity and Flex services for both its cable subscribers and those of Cox Communications, much as Netflix
NFLX
and Peacock are.

At least some of the Circle programming runs every week on Gray’s broadcast stations, as well as the station groups of Tegna, Meredith and CBS. Gray and Meredith are also launching a new streaming service called VUit, which Reifenberger said may also become a home for Circle.

Circle is also trying to make inroads with other traditional pay-TV providers, especially with the satellite services because they serve so many people in rural areas and small towns without cable, Reifenberger said. The channel already has some carriage deals around the country with some cable providers.

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