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Miss Piggy and Vince Gill perform “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” at “CMA Country Christmas,” Thursday, Nov. 10, 2011 at the Bridgestone Arena in Downtown Nashville. “CMA Country Christmas” will air on Thursday, Dec. 1 on the ABC Television Network.

As TV viewers took in the final moments of ABC’s live broadcast of “The 45th Annual CMA Awards” on Wednesday, Nov. 9, and as the last audience members filed out from Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, one might have imagined that lights dimmed throughout the venue and a long night’s work came to an end.

Not at all. Co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood had just finished waving goodbye as the backstage crew sprinted into action, moving sets and scenery, bringing Christmas-season decorations out from the wings and onto the stage. Work continued throughout the night and the following day, up to the moment when taping began for the 2011 “CMA Country Christmas,” which airs Thursday, Dec. 21, 9 p.m. on ABC Television.

According to Executive Producer Robert Deaton, overseeing two major television specials on consecutive nights actually makes the job easier.

“Shooting the day after the Awards provides us the unique opportunity to produce a very high-end, polished-looking show,” he said. “We would never be able to do it otherwise because we can take advantage of having all our 17 cameras, all the screens that are in the Awards set, the crew and everything else. So therefore we get a show that looks 10 times better than it would look as a standalone by incorporating the economies of scale.”

For all he’s done on the two older CMA television broadcasts, the live Awards show and the taped “CMA Music Festival: Country Music’s Biggest Night,” Deaton has a special affection for “CMA Country Christmas.” Why? Well, it’s Christmas!

“My dream was always to do a special at Christmastime that was reminiscent of the specials of Dean Martin, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland, where it was very warm and open and there was interaction between the artists,” he explained. “You would literally stop between songs and do an interview maybe in a living room because Christmas is the one time of the year where you can be reflective and a bit sentimental.”

That was the concept Deaton brought to ABC when discussions began on what would become the first “CMA Country Christmas,” aired in 2010. Among the initial concerns was whether today’s viewers would respond to the old-school model that he embraced. Then, having resolved to give it a shot, a more creative question arose: With two other  annual CMA television spectaculars already established, how could the new addition stand out with its own identity?

“It’s different from the Festival broadcast, for example, whose tag line is ‘Country Music’s Night to Rock,’” he observed. “For that show, we put the pedal to the metal and we don’t let up. For this one, we began by making sure it’s a CMA Christmas special, not a holiday special. We wanted it to be something the whole family could watch without having to worry about whether somebody is going to say something off-color.”

To achieve that goal, Deaton again reached back to the classic Christmas specials.

“I looked at old tapes and I saw, for example, one part of a Judy Garland special where she was sitting around the piano with Mel Tormé. They were just talking back and forth, almost like the cameras weren’t there. So I thought it would be very cool, when we introduced Reba in last year’s show, that Jennifer Nettles would be standing right beside her and they’d just talk about what they like about Christmas. Those kinds of moments don’t just happen. You have to craft them out far in advance.”

The 2010 special was an auspicious debut, with ABC drawing 18 percent more viewers than Fox and 12 percent more than NBC during that time slot, which persuaded the network to re-air the show a few weeks later, again in prime time. It also made it definite that Nettles, selected to serve as host, would be called back to duty for 2011.

“Jennifer is absolutely fantastic,” Deaton said. “What you see is what you get with her. She’s a dynamic performer. Onstage, she is always up, always smiling and engaging with her fans. She’s the most positive person, I think, I’ve ever met, and I felt that would come across on camera. Those were all qualities I thought we needed for the Christmas special, and she is a big contributor to the overall feel.”

Along with Nettles reprising her role, “CMA Country Christmas” this year will feature an all-star assembly of artists, including Lauren Alaina, Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Little Big Town, Scotty McCreery, Brad Paisley, Rascal Flatts, Darius Rucker, Brian Setzer, Sugarland, Keith Urban and more.

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