CMA Chiefs on the Key to Putting on an Awards Show During a Pandemic: Testing, Testing, Testing

On Wednesday night (Nov. 11), the CMA Awards pulled off the first awards show during the pandemic to include a live audience. To be sure, it was limited to socially distanced nominated artists and performers, but it also marked the first time that the country music community had gathered in person since COVID-19 hit this spring.

The CMA Awards’ ambitious plans meant rigorous testing for the scaled-back crew (which still numbered 500) and artists. That led to a handful of artists— Lee Brice, Lady A, Rascal Flatts, Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard and musician Jenee Fleenor— dropping out because they or members of their family tested positive.

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Like every awards show during the pandemic, the ABC show saw a ratings decline—down from 11.27 million viewers last year to 7.08 million viewers, according to sister publication The Hollywood Reporter. Despite the drop, Country Music Assn. CEO Sarah Trahern and the show’s executive director Robert Deaton tell Billboard they were pleased with the show in multiple ways.

Billboard: In terms of producing a show during a pandemic, how close were you able to deliver what you had envisioned?

Trahern: When we started planning six or so months ago, we had a number of scenarios planned. As we got closer to the broadcast, the scenarios became fewer and fewer until we landed on what you saw [Wednesday] night. But I have to say, my expectations were far exceeded. I knew it would be a special night for artists to come together, but seeing and feeling the energy in the room—it was so special, and I heard from so many of the artists who were so happy we were able to produce the show the way we did.

What had you learned from the awards shows that had gone before during the pandemic you that helped you plan the CMA Awards?

Deaton: I’d gone through the Billboard Music Awards [as executive producer]. It’s shocking at first that you have to work with a mask on and a shield. It’s also different by region: the same rules that applied in Los Angeles for the Billboard Music Awards don’t necessarily apply in Nashville. If someone did a show in New York, those rules would be different. I don’t know if we had done the same show in L.A. if we would have been approved to have an audience. The city health department is different. I do know this: it takes three times as long.

How so?

Deaton: We can’t have the number of crew people that we normally have [so] you can’t go [totally] live. Miranda Lambert really wanted to go live live and said, “What if I do a stripped down version of ‘Settling Down’ with just two guitar players” and that we can accomplish, but we could never accomplish a full band. The rules are so different than doing a regular show than doing one in Covid….Everybody that was with a full band had to take the players that were going to be on stage into the recording studio and cut the track. Certain people were live still. John Osborne’s guitar was live, Dierks Bentley’s guitar was live. The fiddle player was live on “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” but drums and guitar was all pre-recorded because it just takes so many more people to mic everything and we just are not allowed to have that many people on stage. All vocals were live.

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A number of artists had to drop out because they or a member of their family tested positive for COVID. What was the testing protocol? 

Trahern: We began testing weeks before the show, in October. It’s not just the artists and their guests we tested—we tested literally everyone: stagehands, production crew, our staff, in addition to talent. We have our final load out happening now at Music City Center, so testing doesn’t just stop because talent is no longer on site. We also consulted with an epidemiologist throughout the process.

How did the artists dropping out because of COVID affect you?

Deaton: Reality sets in when you get the first call that someone has tested positive and can’t be on the show and that was Lee Brice. I realized it could happen again, so I went to the network and I said, “I’m going to overbook the show. Do I have permission to go long because we may lose a performance or two.” I also had in place CMA Flashbacks. Let’s say on the day of show, three people test positive and I’ve got to replace them, you can’t just throw an artist up there because we’re live to track. One of the clips I chose was from 1983 where Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers did “Islands in the Stream,” and I thought if I lose a performance or lose two, I can show that in its entirety and I think the audience would like to see that. You don’t want anybody to drop out, but I was prepared in case it happened.

Was the number of artists who had to drop out proof that your protocols worked or a sign that it may be too early to try to put too many artists together or both? 

Trahern: I think it’s proof our protocols worked. None of the artists who tested positive had ever entered the venue. The protocols we followed were required not only by the CDC but the local health department, as well as the unions and guilds.

Deaton: We had Zone A and B: if we’re changing out a band, we announce that Zone B is on stage so no one else can go on stage and then once the crew were clear, we announced that Zone A can go on stage and those were the artists, musicians. It took 15 minutes between each performance.

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Because of that, how many performances were taped and how many were live?

Deaton: There we’re 21 performances and 10 of them were pre-taped.

That included Dan+Shay and Justin Bieber’s performance of “10,000 Hours” from an empty Hollywood Bowl. Would you have allowed that during a regular, non-pandemic show?

Deaton: We probably would not have done it in a normal year because on the CMA Awards we don’t normally have remotes. The last year was we went to a live remote was when we were in New York [in 2005] and to Garth Brooks in Times Square. But everything’s different right now.

Like every awards show during the pandemic, your ratings were down. Do you attribute that to the pandemic or are there ways you need to rethink the award show? 

Trahern: If you look at the other awards shows that have aired since the start of the pandemic, we are all down in ratings. I think the behavior of television viewers has changed greatly in the last several months, but I also believe there is still great value in delivering live programming. I think we produced an incredible show, and I told our team that no matter what the ratings looked like, we should be proud of our work.

Deaton: The CMA Awards numbers were up last year. To think that we weren’t going to be down when everybody else was down, I think that would have been trying to fool yourself. I don’t think about [the ratings]. I think about trying to making it the best possible show we can make it. I think when we get out of this, the country music audience will find us again and we’ll come back as strong as ever.

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What advice do you have the Recording Academy as they try to figure out logistics for the Grammys in January?

Deaton: I would just say this: you have be prepared. You have to have plan A, B, C and D because its moving all the time. I had a short, medium and a long version for every one of my award packages in case someone fell out. I was driving my people crazy, especially my editors. I had different lengths of bumpers. They probably did three shows’ worth of work just to have the backup. If [Recording Academy interim CEO] Harvey [Mason Jr.] or [Nov. 22’s American Music Awards’ producer] Larry Klein want to call me, I’m an open book but they don’t need any of my advice.

Trahern: I think the great thing happening with each awards show is the level of creativity and reimagining that is happening. I’m sure just like we did, they have a number of ideas and scenarios already in the works. I can’t wait to see what they have up their sleeves.

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