Recent crop of shows stumbles, as locals say they don't reflect the Nashville they know and love
It's a well-known truth in Music City: For every country singer who makes it to an arena stage, there are thousands who won't get beyond the clubs. There's proving to be a similar story written in the expanding world of Nashville-made television.
After premiering in 2012, ABC's prime-time drama "Nashville" has found a steady audience of millions and probably will complete its second full season in May. While that network show has become steadily embraced and even credited with boosting tourism, a slew of Nashville-based reality TV shows that have sprung up in its wake have taken a social media bashing for the images they're projecting of the city.
The success of these shows — which started hitting the airwaves late last year — was far from guaranteed:
• Lifetime's "Chasing Nashville," which premiered in October, was canceled after airing just four episodes.
• A&E's "Crazy Hearts: Nashville" completed its first season last week, but the network has confirmed to The Tennessean that the show will not return for a second.
• The latest entry, TNT's "Private Lives of Nashville Wives," was been bumped to air an hour later in its third week and has experienced a sharp decline in local ratings — one reflection of a widespread complaint that these Nashville-based reality shows don't reflect the city that local viewers know and love.
"It's unusual to have a show, especially one that's considered one of your flagship shows, run at 10 o'clock at night," said Mark Binda, program and research director at Nashville's News Channel 5. "So obviously, it's a really bad trend. It wasn't great to begin with, and it's gone down every week since."
But on the national front, "Nashville Wives" is actually on the upswing: Monday night's episode earned the show its biggest audience yet with 928,000 viewers, though that's still fewer than half of the viewership of Bravo's similar "Real Housewives of Beverly Hills."
Sarah Davidson — one of six stylish Nashville women featured on "Nashville Wives" — said she's aware, but not worried, about the show's numbers.
"The ratings have not been extremely great, I don't think, but I honestly never in my heart was hoping that, 'Oh, this is going to be the biggest show on TV!' I never really felt that," she said. "I thought, 'Hey, this is a really cool experience.' "
What's been harder for Nashville's reality TV stars to ignore is a considerable amount of negative local reaction, particularly online.
When The Tennessean broke the news on Tuesday that "Crazy Hearts" — which followed the careers and turbulent love lives of young musicians and industry figures — had ended its run, the top-voted reader comments on Facebook called the show "horrible," said it gave Nashville "a sleazy personality" and said its end was a "small miracle."
Brentwood-based nonprofit consultant Abby Farrington Goff, 34, waited until she watched the "Nashville Wives" premiere to decide that she wasn't a fan. Her qualm with the show is a common one: that its "reality" presentation of Nashville — with plenty of catty comments, cocktails and a few Southern stereotypes — doesn't look like the community she knows and loves.
"I think it just seems so out of touch with what really goes on in the city," she said. "I believe in the first episode, they were shooting watermelons with a gun."
The stars of "Nashville Wives" and "Crazy Hearts" said they've anticipated that complaint.
"We're all protective of our town," said "Crazy Hearts" cast member Lee Holyfield, a Nashville native. "I absolutely get that. So skepticism? That's healthy, absolutely. Worry, because who is this, coming into our town and trying to expose our city?"
"Wives" premiered on Feb. 24 to a decent 2.3 rating in the Nashville market — equaling roughly 23,000 homes — but slipped to a 1.1., then a 0.2 in the following weeks.
"Wives" cast member Davidson, a singer-songwriter who will release an EP of country music later this month, said, "I don't think it gets any more Nashville than me, really, to be completely honest. I don't represent the mom that takes her daughter to (Nashville elementary school) Julia Green every day because that's not my life. But not everybody in Nashville's the same, and that's what really is awesome about it. It's a collection of so many different personalities."
Another perception the "Crazy Hearts" cast members are trying to fight: that the show was a ratings failure. Holyfield believes their fate could have been different on a network other than A&E, which is used to massive reality hits such as "Duck Dynasty."
"They promised advertisers 'Duck Dynasty' viewership, and that's what advertisers are paying for," she said.
The show premiered on A&E immediately after "Dynasty," and though it failed to maintain its "lead-in" audience, it continued to attract roughly 1 million viewers per week before moving to Saturdays at 1 p.m., where it continued to pull 700,000 viewers.
Among those were devoted fans like Tonya Carlton-Craney of Greenfield, Ind. The 33-year-old stay-at-home mom said she was "hooked" by the show's romance. The show has made her think about making a trip to Nashville to see the cast members in concert.
Stories like those are a point of pride for "Crazy Hearts" cast member (and former Tennessean staffer) Heather Byrd, who was a key force behind the show and helped assemble its cast.
"I'm really proud of it," she said. "We would all love to have some more glory with it, but I think we're realistic, as well. None of us went into this project thinking that we were going to start raking in the dough on any level, but we were all super excited about it, and we've already had some great opportunities come from being a part of it.
"I think it's impossible to represent what everybody's version of Nashville is in their head," she said. "You just have to tell your own story. So that's what we did."