When The Circle Network launched on January 1st, 2020 as a joint venture between Gray Television and the Grand Ole Opry’s parent company Ryman Hospitality, everyone had big hopes that it would see the grand return of true country music to television. Along with 16 original shows, the network’s Opry Live presentation each week spelled the re-emergence of the Grand Ole Opry on the small screen, even if in a limited capacity.
Some of the network’s programming will continue in other locations in the digital world, but in a 3rd Quarter financial report released on November 6th, Ryman Hospitality and Gray Television let it be known that the linear Circle TV network along with their partnership will “wind down” on December 31st, 2023. The network is currently available in over 100 markets.
The report says, “In September 2023, we determined to pivot from television network ownership in favor of a distribution approach. Therefore, we and our joint venture partner agreed to wind down the Circle joint venture, with operations expected to cease December 31, 2023. As a result, we incurred a loss related to Circle of approximately $10.6 million in the three and nine months ended September 30, 2023.”
A spokesperson for Ryman Hospitality went on to say, “The Circle brand isn’t going away. The linear TV network will wind down at the end of the year along with the joint venture. Programming like ‘Opry Live’ and ‘Coffee, Country & Cody’ will continue to be produced and made available digitally on FAST, streaming and other digital distribution platforms. We also expect ‘Opry Live’ to air on network television, just not on a dedicated Circle network. Opry Live will also air on Sky Arts in the U.K.”
The Circle Network had a lot of promise at the beginning as a place for new country music programming and archive footage of previous Opry performances. It benefited from the pandemic when the Grand Ole Opry was one of the few productions that was allowed to continue, even though no crowds were in attendance. The “Circle” remained unbroken, and the Opry broadcasts through The Circle Network every Saturday night helped revitalize the Opry as an institution.
But Circle seemed to lose its way post-pandemic. Some of the original shows never saw second seasons. Most of the day was filled with network TV reruns. The long-planned return of Hee-Haw never happened, and Circle did little to tap the vast archives of Opry material for rebroadcast.
The writing was on the wall for The Circle Network after NBC Universal purchased a 30% stake in Ryman Hospitality in April of 2022. The partnership recently resulted in the People Choice Country Awards. Depsite the new partnership, we have yet to see actual Grand Ole Opry presentations make it onto NBC. Whether that will transpire in the future remains to be seen.
Exactly what will happen to The Circle app where many people streamed shows also remains a question. Opry Live and Coffee, Country & Cody will be available on FAST, and Ryman Hospitality insists The Circle Network will still exist, just not in TV form. But it feels like the big opportunity to give a home to The Grand Ole Opry on the television once again is over. Just how significant the effort will be to keep it alive in the digital world remains to be seen.