275 Million Smartphones Can’t Be Wrong: How Circle & The Opry Are Crushing It
Mark Mosrie / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC – Grand Ole Opry
When Opryland Entertainment and Gray TV came together to launch Circle in January of this year, no one would’ve imagined the 95-year-old Grand Ole Opry being Pollstar’s No. 1 streaming source for the year to date. But in the COVID-19 world, the country music/lifestyle media company built by 18-year Turner Broadcasting veteran Drew Reifenberger made the Opry one of the most accessible entertainment destinations for live music.
Having primarily built out sports franchises – NASCAR and the PGA – that superserved fans and forward-thinking distribution networks, Reifenberger combined his diverse expertise with Opry Entertainment President Scott Bailey’s commitment to innovative content, resource development and growth strategies to not only hyper-focus on what the fans want, but the most pioneering ways to get the programming to them. Intended for a “soft launch” and organic build, starting with “Coffee, Country and Cody” at midnight January 1, the pandemic-related shutdown created a far different reality. What started as an hour of the best Opry performances in a given week was radically overhauled. “Opry” became something else: a one-hour live show.
“When the shutdown hit on Friday,” Reifenberger recalls, “we pivoted. Hoping the artists would support us – and they have – we went all the way to back to the (WSM) barn dances and just kept going . Our near-term goal was do the best show under the circumstances. There was scrambling with the tech, the trucks and the members. While the networks were canceling, we were going live with no audience.
“It was scary those first few weeks, but the artists stepped up. The first week, we knew we were doing something special. You could feel its significance, that it’s historic.”
Vince Gill, Brad Paisley and Marty Stuart did the first night. The family connection deepened with Vince Gill and Amy Grant with their daughters the next week. Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood did a week, Blake Shelton and Gwen Stefani joined Trace Adkins and Dustin Lynch, while Hillary Scott did double duty with Lady A and the Scott Family and Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell and Gill reunited their Hot Band musical family.
It is the willingness to focus the shows: progressive nights (Old Crow Medicine Show, Dom Flemons, Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle), old friends (Luke Bryan and Darius Rucker, CMA host packs Gill and Reba, then Paisley and Carrie Underwood), all girls (Ashley McBryde, Lauren Alaina and Terri Clark), young turks (Jon Pardi, Runaway June with Pam Tillis), intriguing mash-ups (the Gatlins, Margo Price and Jimmie Allen, or Keb’ Mo’ and Brad Paisley) or even songwriters (Bill Anderson, Brandy Clark, Mandy Barnett, Chris Janson and Don Schlitz).
Mark Mosrie / Courtesy Grand Ole Opry LLC – Drew Reifenberger
Circle Center: Circle Media GM Drew Reifenberger, who this year helped create a new media platform for the Opry.
“We went from shooting all three nights, cutting together the best performances to debut on Wednesday to something totally live… I’m always an audience-first guy. What do they want? And they wanted something that was real, that was live.”
“People were staying up in the UK, or setting alarms to be able to watch live,” says Bailey of the growth. “Adding video as the third dimension to experience something that’s known and loved? Now you’re virtually there in high-def on 12-14 cameras. We’re now appointment viewing, that sense of relief that something’s continuing make it almost celebrated viewing.
“When we go online, two, three million people are jumping on the various platforms. We’re bringing new opportunities for connecting, embracing the tech side because we’re not content with the 2,000 and 4,400 people in the venues and over WSM-AM.”
Reifenberger knows, “We have a reach of 90 million streaming, 275 million smartphones. Every Android and Apple device: we can go straight into their phones.”
There were three simple goals: identify the artists, grow the relationship with fans and then grow vertically what there was. They sought to provide a comprehensive slate of programming for fans of country music, including new spins on lifestyle (“Southern Weekend,” “Better Half”), outdoor sports (“Upstream with Elizabeth Cook,” “On The Road”), faith (“Jesus Calling,” “The Gaither Gospel Hour”), comedy (“Stand Up Nashville”), music (including Opry documentaries) and yes, some core programming (“Bonanza,” “Hee Haw” and “The Beverly Hillbillies”).
“We didn’t want to overdefine it,” explains Reifenberger, an Auburn alum. “You hear people say, ‘I’m not really a country fan,’ then go on and on about how they love the new Luke Combs song. We’re here for adventure and discovery based on those people. Now, we just have to continue to feed the beast.”