Being an independent in today’s TV landscape “takes some guts,” according to Stan Hitchcock, chairman and CEO of BlueHighways TV, an independent network celebrating original American roots music, culture and events. And he should know. BlueHighways is his 3rd start-up, the first being Country Music Television, which he founded in 1984. At this year’s Cable Show in Boston, he was named a Cable Pioneer.
Hitchcock began his career as a country singer for Columbia’s Epic Records, produced 12 albums and 2 nationally syndicated TV shows and was inducted into Missouri’s Country Music Hall of Fame. CableFAX spoke with Hitchcock about what is takes to be an indie, translating what he learned from music to television and his favorite artists to work with over the years.
What are the top issues you face as in independent in today’s landscape?

It’s a rough business. And it has been for years. This is my 3rd independent network and it hasn’t gotten any easier, but really it hasn’t gotten any harder either. It’s a culture you accept if the belief in the concept you’re pushing—your driving force—is strong enough, and you are a stick-to-it person.
What are the challenges?

It can be a very lonely position at times, and it can be a very wonderful position. I’ve been involved with the start up of 3 independent cable networks, starting with CMT in ’84 and going on. I’ve had my share of standing in front of gatekeepers and pitching [my] dream. It takes some guts to stand there. And you don’t have a big company behind you, you don’t have the infrastructure that the big guys have. But you also have the total independence to follow your dream. And just every now and then, you’ll be doing your pitch and you’ll end up in front of someone like the late Bill Bresnan, or his brother Pat, when they took my meeting a few years ago and decided they liked our network. They were the first cable system that put on BlueHighways TV. It was more than just the fact that they put us on their system—they encouraged me. They bought into the importance of what we were doing. And that basically at the heart of it. You have to feel like what you’re doing is important. It’s not just a business challenge.
How has the industry changed over the years?

Our communication industry has made giant strides in the years since I’ve been in it. I mean when I started out, color television had just barely getting started in the ‘60s, back when I had a nationwide television show and one of the first country music shows out of Nashville. I learned early on the power of that tube and how it affects people’s lives, and how it can encourage them and entertain them.
For an independent, the main thing you have to get used to is, you’re out there with no safety net. But when you meet the challenges and you prove yourself and you stick with it, the rewards are wonderful. Not from a success standpoint as much as the feedback you start getting from an audience that is so loyal and passionate about what you’re doing. I learned that being an entertainer on stage for so many years. An entertainer feeds on the return energy from the audience. That’s what drives an entertainer and it should be what drives a television network. You should feed on the energy of your viewers and the people that support you. They’re letting you into their home, they’re letting you into their house.
Is that how your musical background has helped you succeed in television?
Very much. It taught me early on that you have to know your audience, then you have to listen your audience and you have to answer your audience. You have to provide them what they want. It’s so easy to sit around in a room with a programming committee and come up with wonderful ideas and all this. The ultimate test is not just the great ideas that come out. The great test is people watching at home. They either will support you or they’ll let you know real quick that’s not for them. So you’ve got to keep that thing growing. The pulse of television is the audience that watches.
What’s you advice to independents just starting today?

First of all, you’ve got to have the strength of conviction that what you’re doing is important and that you are there for the long haul. It can’t be a quick fix. My heroes in independent cable television were people like John Hendricks of Discovery. People think now, Discovery, what a monster company. But he was hanging out there on a limb without a support team also. He brought it through and got the support of the cable industry. He’s my number 1 cable hero.
The thing that I suggest to independents is, put their money in the screen—not bricks and mortar. You don’t have to build a big facility and spend all your funding money on flash. Get it on the screen, and prove yourself. And gather the support of an audience. Nothing is more powerful than that.
CMT is a different network from when you were there. There’s a lot more than music on the channel today. What do you think of the state of music television today?

That’s another part of the way life seemingly goes with independents. When you do get a network you’ve started and sweat and bled to get it to success, and it gathers the interest of the giants and they buy it and take it over… Of course, they pay their money and it’s their right to change it any way they want to and I applaud that. But what has happened in most music, and not just in terms of television but in recording and the entire music industry, [it] has gone so far overboard to capture an extremely young, youthful audience and customer base that they have ignored to a certain extent the biggest mass of people in our country right now. [They’re] not teenagers. It’s an aging population. And that aging population still loves the music they grew up on. And [with] our roots music format, we play to a lot of classic music and classic artists, but we do not close the door on new artists. We love finding new artists and new music, so in our case it’s a mix—we try a reach that covers the spectrum of a demographic that’s ever changing.

What has been your favorite project?

My favorite television project is not necessarily the most successful, which of course was CMT. It’s the one that I’m doing now, because BlueHighways TV is a distillation of all the years I’ve been in it and all of the feedback we’ve gotten through audiences and viewers all over the country. I still keep very close contact with our viewership. My day is spent in the office, at least 3 or 4 hours a day, answering direct emails from our audience who contact me and tell me at length what they want, what they like and what they love. So this point in my life with Blue Highways, a journey across America finding the good things happening. That’s really it. It’s a very pleasant place for me to be right now. So I’m excited about our prospects, we’re moving forward. And any time an independent can say hey we’re moving forward, that’s a blessing.

In your years as a musician, who was your favorite artist to work with?

One of the favorites of the newer artists—of course you’ve got to break it down into generations because I go so far back. I go back, in music, 53 years. But of the recent artists, ones that I helped to break on CMT… My wife and I Denise lived in a little log cabin outside of Nashville when I was running CMT. A record company called me, Capitol Records, and said, we got a new artist we’re bringing to town, we want you to meet him. So they sent him out to my house—not my office, but my house, which I liked. He came driving up in his pickup truck with his dog, he got out with his guitar and he and I sat on the front porch of our log cabin. He opened up his guitar case and took out his journal, opened it up and started singing from all of the monster hits that he had from then on. Garth Brooks. I was tremendously impressed with a young man that came to town, not just with a dream, but with a plan. He is and was not only a great talent but he’s one of best marketers of his music and career of anybody I have every met. And a wonderful guy.  A good friend, I love him.

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