A Tennessee musician once described as the love-child of Kid Rock and Run-D.M.C. may be the star of U.S. net A&E’s next big hit.
The 10 x 30-minute series Big Smo, premiering tonight on A&E, follows the titular “hick-hop” artist (born John Smith) as he kickstarts his music career while balancing a wide network of family and friends. Airing after mega-hit Duck Dynasty, it’s the kind of family-themed show catering to middle-American values that A&E hopes will resonate, much like Wahlburgers did with a similar lead-in from Duck Dynasty.
“We know our Duck audience loves family and clearly Smo has that,” said Shelly Tatro, SVP of development and programming at A&E, in an interview with realscreen. “We think there’s a lot in the characteristics of who Smo is and what he stands for that will feel appealing to the Duck audience.”
Raised on a farm in Unionville, Tennessee, the hulking Smo was heavily influenced by country music, hip hop and classic rock, and his musical stylings are a reflection of these elements. After enjoying a degree of fame on YouTube, Smo signed with Warner Music Nashville and soon raised the interest of VH1, which shot a pilot with him a few years ago.
Tatro, who was serving as SVP of production and programming at VH1 at the time, remembers rallying hard to get the artist on the air, but says the pilot didn’t move forward “for a variety of reasons.” However, when she got to A&E earlier this year, Smo’s name surfaced again and the net went ahead with a series, calling on Barter Kings producers Brownstone Entertainment to handle the show.
“A&E saw that we were really great with characters,” said Brownstone co-founder and executive producer Bob Gillan. “We found the really memorable characters in Barter Kings and I think they thought we’d be able to do the same thing with Big Smo.”
Drew Brown, the other co-founder and executive producer for the prodco, says he had his reservations about the show at first, but quickly changed his outlook after speaking with Smo.
“We talked to Big Smo on Skype on a Tuesday, and I remember knowing a little bit about him but expecting him to be really intimidating, and I thought I would not like this person,” said Brown.
“But it turned out he was absolutely the opposite. He was so funny and full of stories, and just the warmest, most loveable person we’d ever met. And we literally got on a plane to Tennessee the next day.”
In a reality climate saturated with larger-than-life characters, the producers say that what differentiates Big Smo from those clamoring for the spotlight is his down-to-earth nature.
“Smo’s main concern is, ‘Well, I’m going to have trouble going to Wal-Mart now because I’m too famous,’” says Gillan. “It’s simple and charming and that’s why you want to root for him, because you’re like, ‘This is my neighbor down the street.’”
The producer adds: “What’s great about the show is the characters are very normal. You recognize these people. All the stuff that’s in there is very familiar and accessible as opposed to something where you’re in Beverly Hills and it’s very foreign.”
Tatro says a growing focus on Middle America – a geographic region she says was previously under-served – and moving further into family-oriented programming has been a strategic move by A&E.
“A lot of nets focus on shows that are very New York or L.A.-centric, and then there’s a whole middle of the country that loves television,” said Tatro.
“And I think you have to serve up that part of the country and that part of the audience with shows and spaces that are familiar to them,” she added. “I think a lot of what you see in Duck Dynasty and the values you see there, you see them in Big Smo as well.”
Big Smo premieres on A&E tonight (June 11) at 10:30 p.m. EST/PST.