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HIT THE ROAD, JACK
Sussman Continues His Vegas Residency

Jack Sussman has walked the line between mainstream and country for years. As CBS’ EVP of Specials, Music and Live Events, he’s overseen the Grammys, the Tonys and myriad music-centric programs. But year after year, his commitment to country music maintains a special place, bringing the ACM Awards to Vegas, with its decidedly party edge—and extending that party into America’s living rooms for three rocking hours.

Still as viewing patterns shift, new artists with less established TVQ emerge and the Academy’s longstanding “West Coast, not Nashville” identity remains, the Tulane University Executive in Residence lives to set his show—whose ratings matched last year’s CMA Awards telecast—apart.

Here we go again…
Right? In the world we’re living in, these shows are just happening way too often. So if you’re going to give an audience something special and different, you have to bring credibility and creativity to the process. It’s something they can’t see anywhere else.

Given that overload, do you think there’s awards-show exhaustion?
I think the weak ones will die, because they’re not giving the audience something special and different. We’re not making a radio show; it’s not just about playing a hit. This is a live event for television; how it looks and what surprises you matters.

Are you planning something beyond the awards and performances?
We’re still promoting Country Music’s Biggest Party, with a bunch of the best artists doing something we try to make stand out. We view this show as a moment in time, the place country music is this year—and reflect that with a beginning, a middle and an end that says something about that instead of just a collection of songs with awards interspersed.

In promoting a show to the mainstream, is having so many newer names leading the nominees a blessing or a curse?
This isn’t necessarily so new and different. Think of it more as an evolution than a revolution. When we first booked Luke Bryan, it was like ‘Who is that guy?’ But a year later, he was back, co-hosting with Blake Shelton. I think if you’re smart, every one of these shows should be a place for artist discovery. If you look at the Grammys, Brandi Carlile, who has a definite following, went on with that amazing performance of “The Joke.” I promise you, 90% of the audience discovered her that night and were blown away. That’s what you want.

Dan + Shay certainly had that Grammy experience too.
When you open up your mouth and that sound comes out, what else do you need? People really responded to them. Here, because they’re more known, we’re trying to do something fun that builds on what you saw at the Grammys. We’re trying to get them together with another artist where maybe they’ll have a little vocal sword fight—obviously to a friendly finish.

Really?
Sure, people love seeing artists going for it. When I was doing the CMAs, we had Clint Black and Martina McBride—and when they came off the stage, Clint looked like he’d run a marathon. He joked that she’d almost killed him, but people loved seeing that passion. You can’t fake things like that, so you have to have people who can do it live. But when they deliver…

Look, you talk to most viewers about the ACMs or the Grammys, they don’t remember who won. They always talk about those great live moments that explode out of their TVs, because when you have a legitimately great performance, people respond. It’s not the stats, the tickets sold or the swag that gets bought, it’s who brings it.

Last year, you started showcasing the new guard of legends like Alan Jackson. Will we see more of that?
The secret is a balance of iconic artists, new stars and emerging talent. [Show producer] Rac Clark is really good at sussing out what’s going to matter. We want part of the show to be ahead of the curve, for viewers to know we’re seeking out the next superstar, so they can have that “Aha!” moment. I remember us watching Maren Morris before anyone was in on it, when they were first bringing her around to meet people. We recognized “My Church,” saw what she could be. Look what happened.

But back to those bold-faced names—people really know them artists.
We want to take some history and really honor it, of course. Connect those artists beyond the contemporary context to open up their influence, but also show the weight of why they matter. Everybody loves George Strait; we’re going to do something with him. I’m hoping we’re going to do something around this Brooks & Dunn ReBoot project. And we’ve got Reba. Everybody loves Reba.

She didn’t really love the lack of women in this year’s Entertainer of the Year category.
She has amazing credibility, and I get why she said that. But it’s bigger than just the ballot, isn’t it? The industry needs to lead the way to bring more of the core women to the party, and to really listen to them. I think a shift is happening, and we will get more women on camera who are in front of the microphone. There are amazing, powerful, creative women behind the scenes helping drive this.

Look at Cindy Mabe, a record label head second to none—male or female. Look at all the great women managers, who are breaking new artistic ground for their clients—Marion Kraft, Mary Hilliard, Virginia Davis, Janet Weir, Kerri Edwards, Ann Edelblute... I’d be happy to be in a live TV foxhole with any one of them making special music events for television, because they’re all creative. And they get that it needs to be more than just standing there playing the new single the same way their artist does every night in some city as part of their tour.

Vegas has almost become the co-host for this telecast.
By design. It has a vibe. It’s a party. It gives us certain licenses and locations to work with. There’s that larger-than-life aspect to it, which is important for the ACM’s legacy. Back in the day of Dick Clark, Bill Boyd and Gene Weed, they went at this show in a very special way to give the ACMs a persona. It was founded on the West Coast and the progressive piece of the music—and we continue that in a different way.

Obviously, this is also the place where the Route 91 tragedy happened, and the echoes of the Borderline Nightclub shooting a few months ago.
Those things are horrible. And they’re happening way more now than ever, to where it’s almost commonplace. I think, obviously, it will be on people’s minds, but our people? They’re not going to let crazy people win. Love trumps hate, and music has always been the thing that helps people rise up, helps people heal.

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