Back on April 24th, the Opry Entertainment Group announced they would be launching a “Lifestyle television channel” in early 2020 with the help of Atlanta-based Gray Television to focus on “Country music artists and the passions, hobbies and love of music they share with their fans.”
With Gray Television’s presence in 93 separate media markets in the United States covering roughly 25% of U.S. households, and the Opry’s parent company Ryman Hospitality claiming they can reach a digital audience of 46.6 million people, the idea sounded promising from a business standpoint, but they didn’t really fill in a lot of information about exactly what country fans could expect. Would it include interesting country music programming similar to some of the programs RFD-TV currently serves, or would it be similar to CMT, running reruns of Smokey & The Bandit all day and bad reality TV competitions?
On October 17th, the name of the new network was finally announced. Called “Circle,” it promises to offer entertainment news, documentaries and movies, licensed programming and archival content, as well as, “Entertainment experiences celebrating the country lifestyle [to] enrich the artist-fan connection that is the backbone of country music,” according to President of the Opry Entertainment Group, Scott Bailey.
Again, this could mean just about anything. But the biggest piece of news to come out of the official announcement of the Circle Network is that it will finally mark the return of the Grand Ole Opry to television. Right now all they’re promising is a “…weekly broadcast of the Grand Ole Opry.” No word if it will be a live broadcast, taped, a compilation of Opry performances from a week of shows since the Grand Ole Opry regularly runs on multiple days during the week, or something else.
Though audio of the Grand Ole Opry has always been broadcast by WSM-AM out of Nashville, and though the longest-running program on radio was syndicated across the country for decades (and now can be streamed online via WSM’s website), it’s been many years since the program that made country music famous could be seen on any screen. Certain moments and performances may be released via the Opry’s YouTube channel, but it tends to be a very select amount of material, even though cameras are stationed throughout the Opry House, and the building was designed specifically to work for television broadcasts.
The appearance of the Grand Ole Opry on television was always sporadic, starting on the very early days of the show. Between 1955 and 1956, ABC aired a live, hour-long Opry show each month on Saturday nights. A syndicated show called Stars of the Grand Ole Opry was the first ever television show shot in color. When the Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to the Opry House east of town in 1974, part of the emphasis was to expand the Opry to television. But even though the Opry House was regularly used for awards ceremonies and such that made it onto television screens, Opry presentations were rare aside from PBS airing live performances once a year from 1978 to 1981.
In 1985, The Nashville Network began airing a half hour version of Opry performances under the title The Grand Ole Opry Live. It eventually moved to CMT and expanded to an hour, and then moved to GAC (Great American Country) where the program eventually fizzled. RFD-TV will show older Opry shows under the title Opry Archive, but that’s about the only presence of the Grand Ole Opry anywhere that’s not a radio or the online audio stream currently.
One of the reasons the Grand Ole Opry has been unable to maintain a presence on television is due to a lack of widespread interest. But on a network owned by the Opry Entertainment Group (and named after the iconic wood circle in the Opry House stage brought over from the original Ryman stage), it could work as flagship programming and a promotional tool for the venerable country music institution. The Grand Ole Opry is also one of the few major country music programs that still includes many older stars, while also giving opportunities to up-and-coming acts other broadcasts don’t.
Despite it’s decline in stature, the history of the the Grand Ole Opry is still strong, and makes for powerful moments when artists step into the hallowed circle to make their debut, or get asked to become permanent members. For too long these moments have been relegated to YouTube clips or cellphone video taken by fans. Hopefully the new Circle Network will be the place to broadcast these moments into the foreseeable future.
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The Circle network is expected to launch in early 2020, with a companion digital premium entertainment service to launch in the late spring of 2020.