TV Producer Rac Clark Preps Another ACM Awards Telecast

Rac Clark grew up as showbiz royalty, but his own path to success came without riding his dad’s hefty coattails. The son of iconic American Bandstand and American Music Awards creator Dick Clark, Rac established his bona fides working with Pierre Cossette on the Grammys and with Gil Cates on the Academy Awards before eventually returning to the family business.

With an eye toward giving the music more dimension and impact, Clark has helped the Academy of Country Music’s annual awards ceremony evolve into the kind of blockbuster that employs multiple stages, alternate locations, unlikely pairings and stunning moments.

Beyond staging the Guinness Book of World Records-certified Most-Attended Awards Show for the Academy of Country Music Awards’ 50th anniversary at Texas Stadium, Clark produces the annual Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants and has teamed with Ken Ehrlich on several specials, including the Emmy-nominated special The Beatles: The Night That Changed America. For Clark, it was a career highlight. “I am a child of rock & roll. I would have paid Ken to work on that with him, but instead I got paid—and I got to meet Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in the context of honoring their music and what it meant.”

Gearing up for this year’s ACMs, the sandy-haired producer is already busy with wall-to-wall meetings, conference calls and appointments. Our interview was stitched together amid the chaos—on drives home from work and at 5am on his way to the gym. Presenting the artists in the best possible light and turning viewers onto music are his passions, which resound in everything about the way he approaches the creation of his programming.

Beyond producing an entertaining show that focuses on a more progressive take on country music, what goals do you have for the telecast?
Bigger ratings—it’s that simple. I produce a television show that reflects what’s current and what’s happening. But my charge is to do that and get the biggest numbers possible, because those eyes take country music—hopefully—to new people. We are a very strong show; whether it’s the 50th from Texas Stadium, or having Sugarland and Rihanna, people want to look. It’s spectacle, but it’s also the music. If you hear Katy Perry’s gonna be with Dolly Parton, you know you’re gonna look.

With Grammy moments becoming a standard, how much emphasis do you put on musical cross-pollination? What do you look for with the ACMs that might be a little bit different?
Ken Ehrlich really brought that to the Grammys. Music is music, and to show the common ground is powerful. The unexpected pairings say a lot about how much music brings us together. Certainly, no music show gets the numbers the Grammys get. They draw on soul, R&B, rap, pop, rock—and all those artists bring their fans. For us, we start with the committed country fans and try to draw from those other groups. So maybe it is the spectacle of Texas Stadium, and the partners you don’t see like Jerry Jones and the entire Dallas Cowboys organization, as well as the network—that’s a collaboration too. Or on that show, it’s having Nick Jonas and Christina Aguilera, plus many of the classic country artists that people know. Then it’s who blends musically. Music is always the key. Maybe it’s vocally, like Rihanna and Jennifer Nettles. When we did James Taylor and Zac Brown, they both draw from a very warm, acoustic place.

How do you balance country’s biggest names with TVQ, nominees and younger artists breaking out? Because for several artists in particular—Gretchen Wilson and Big & Rich, Miranda Lambert—their first true breakout moments happened on your show, right?
Sometimes we get lucky. With Gretchen, “Redneck Woman” was just out, but you could feel the energy around it. I’d been in Nashville, knew she could really perform—and the whole Muzik Mafia thing made for good television. It’s about the music, but how it looks is critical, because people are watching, not just listening. I’ve got my ear on the ground; I’m talking to people to stay ahead—one hopes—of the curve.

Then I come back to my team, and say, “This is something we should pay attention to.” When we put Taylor Swift on, singing ‘Tim McGraw,” it was her first single—and my only condition was that the two not meet before her performance. So when she sang it in the show, the reaction would be genuine.

There are always a lot of young artists. The trick is trying to understand how to create a moment where they stand out in a mix of the biggest names everyone wants to see.

Is there a great mix for the show?
Every year is different. I think it’s getting the mix right: the tempos, the chemistry between the acts, understanding how to keep people invested—and honestly, the speeches. You get somebody up there, giving a laundry list of thank-you’s to people no one knows, the audience gets restless or tunes out.

What makes the ACMs work?
Really thinking about the song, and why you’re performing it. Not just “It’s my new single,” but putting some thought into how you want to present it, show the fans what this music is. I get big stars, but if you don’t bring your A game, just show up and stand in front of some video, that’s not particularly compelling. The fans want to feel connected—whether it’s the speech, where they really say something to those people who love their music, or creating a performance the people watching go, “Wow—that was incredible!” Because music is an emotional moment, and the performance is supposed to catch that. I think that’s what the fans are looking for: that moment when the performance matches the feeling in the song, and they believe the artist shares how they feel. And it’s not country, but twenty one pilots’ acceptance on the Grammys, where they took off their pants, was a quintessential speech. It humanizes them, puts the band on the couch with every other viewer in their underwear. It’s authentic.

So what’s a great performance?
What is pornography? You know it when you see it.

That was the point of that whole long answer: There’s no formula. You can’t just create it—sometimes you have to let it happen—and it’s why the artist being invested is critical. And that’s where the collaboration between the producer and the artist can be so important. The more layers of people between you, the more it’s like a game of telephone: Everyone’s sure they’re expressing it properly. But you get to rehearsal—and you can see it on the artist’s face: This isn’t what they wanted.

I’ve been lucky. I think most artists have a better sense than most people realize. I’ve had those moments where, in talking, you can figure out how they want to present themselves even when they don’t speak TV, and we’ve had some incredible moments that way.

Blake Shelton was a great franchise. Bluke—as the Luke Bryan/Shelton pairing was known—worked like crazy. Last year, Luke and Dierks Bentley became the new team. What kinds of dynamics make for a good pairing? And do you think that two hosts are better than one?
Let’s go back in history, back to Hollywood, where the Academy had Mac Davis, John Schneider and Loretta Lynn. It’s not the number as much as it is what you’re setting up. Reba was the gold standard: From her TV show, she could play funny, do straight intros and also handle emotional passages. When she wanted to move on, she hosted with Blake, and we built the show to their personalities. I think that’s the secret: Accept the different dynamics and play to what makes whomever is hosting strongest. Take who the artist is in a room, who they are, and show people that. Most artists have a sense of humor, and that humanity is what I think the audience responds to.

You spend a fair amount of time in Nashville. Do you spend the entire year talking to key managers and artists, just to keep your finger on the pulse of the scene?
You have to be present to win, and because we do the ACM Honors in the summer, I am in Nashville more than ever. But out of courtesy to the CMA, I do try to step back and get out of Robert [Deaton]’s way—as he does for us. But relationships are fluid. It’s not just about the awards show. I want to know what people are excited about—the music, the career, because that’s their life. And I work on a lot of shows, from Miss USA and Miss Universe and a pilot for ABC, where country music doesn’t always get a chance—so I try to be mindful of that. We’ve had The Band Perry on Miss Universe, and last year, we gave Chris Young a slot on Miss USA.

How early do you start thinking about what is going to be on your show?
November, really. This year, I heard music and saw an opportunity for a huge moment. It’s not mainstream or what people expect, but it’s country—and it’s the kind of thing that says so much about the quality of what music can be. And it’s only possible because I do try to know these artists and what moves them. Being around all the genres also helps. But a moment like this takes time to set up, to do the outreach and assess interest; maybe show the people involved how it could work so they have faith what you’re suggesting will come off.

To really pull a show like this off, you need to have time to think—and to get people invested in what you see. Some big numbers, especially the collaborations, do come right down to the wire, and I try to be very flexible in working with people to make these visions happen. Most of them are the result of months of back and forth, saying, “What if…?” and getting people to buy into things that aren’t expected.

You’re already in back-to-back meetings. When does it really start to get crazy for you?
After the nominations, that’s when it hits. And with the nominations being later, this year it started with the Grammys and people being in town. People are very proactive when it comes to the awards shows, and it’s both good and a lot coming at you. Obviously, we look to see what happens with the nominations, but we’re doing a television show. It’s important to the Academy and to us to reflect that, but you can’t let that drive the show, especially since many of these artists are nominated for the same songs. Trying to create things that are different and also right for the artist isn’t as easy as it looks—and the meetings aren’t just with labels and artist managers trying to book acts on the show. It’s the network, the ACMs, the people building sets or dealing with staging issues, the tech people.

And how do you cope?
In the old days? Drugs. And alcohol. Now, sleep and exercise. I feel better when I get up and get going. A clear head and working out can sometimes deliver a lot of solutions, or at least options to figure out whatever you’re dealing with.

At what point do you try to have the show booked? Obviously, things change, artists fall out, but the target date tends to be when?
Truthfully, two weeks before load-in—that’s when we know. You can want it four to six weeks out, but after all these years I know it’s not only not realistic, you may lock out some options that would be better if you’d waited. And there are so many factors—timings, pairings, the scenic and screens—that all come into play when you’re booking. As you’re doing all that, drilling down on the creative, things you may need become apparent because, again, this is about the show as a whole. You want to create all these moments that stand out, but it’s still a show.

Two weeks out, we start to breathe again, because we know it’s in place, and that lasts until the trucks start loading in and we get ready for those first rehearsals on Thursday. The truth is, you can plan it on paper, look at sketches and renderings, hear edits and see video content, but until you see it on that stage, get a sense of how it feels in the room, you just don’t know. When that starts happening, that’s when we know if we’re locking down—or if things need to move in the show order, because in the end, we do want it to work for everyone performing.

Talking about the room, being in Vegas adds a certain flavor. This year, you’re in a new building after years at the MGM Grand. What kind of change will the new venue provide?
Well, it’s a sports arena, so it’s similar to Dallas in many ways. There’s a ribbon that goes around, a scoreboard, screens that can work for us—versus being in an arena that was built for performances. The rake of the seats is different, and I think that creates a different energy among the people attending. Also, we did Miss USA there last June, and I can tell you, it’s a much louder building. I don’t know acoustics well enough to explain how or why, but I know sound enough to say not only is it louder, it feels more live. There’s a real excitement and immediacy to the way things sound.

Which is all a long way to say, I think the new venue is going to make this year’s show feel more energetic, more lively and excited. You can’t discount the audience in these broadcasts. The energy and the way they respond are so important for the artists, but I also think that it gets telegraphed to the people watching: You wish you were here. When you can do that, I think, you’ve captured that intangible that draws people to music and to awards show: It’s more than excitement, it’s a moment. The audience in the room really brings that home in a tangible way. 


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