The Business of ‘Glee’

 Joe Pugliese

The note was practically a high “A-sharp”; the cacophony of voices blended perfectly to form an instantly recognizable tone, striking the right balance of volume and shrill while conveying contagious enthusiasm. There  were big smiles, hearty applause and a collective pat on the back. Only this chorus wasn’t singing on the set of Glee; it was 16 cheering department heads seated around a conference table at the Los Angeles offices of 20th Century Fox Television, the studio that produces the hit Fox show. Piped in via video: another eight team members from Columbia Records in New York.

Welcome to the “Gleekly meeting,” a pep rally during which the many tentacles that tend to the nearly half-billion-dollar brand convene to discuss the latest strategies for what has become the network’s No. 2 priority. Averaging 14 million viewers this season, Glee still trails American Idol by a good 10 million, but it’s inching closer to the juggernaut with each passing day. To wit: By the next morning, Jan. 20, hours after Idol’s premiere ratings would show a season-over-season 13 percent decline, the most prominent ad on the Fox lot facing busy Pico Boulevard suddenly had been switched from Ryan Seacrest and company to the Glee gang.

In some ways, it was a symbolic shift — if not exactly in ratings supremacy, then in television momentum. And not just any momentum, but the big-network water-cooler kind that’s hard to come by in a world where small cable gets the buzz, even if their shows don’t always get the numbers. If Idol feels like a slightly worn Vegas act that could use new lipstick, Glee still has the freshness of a Year 2 show whose ratings — and business — are on the upswing while its audience (average age: 34) remains enviably young.

Just one look around the table at the Gleekly meeting reveals the scope of how mammoth, complicated and promising the show is. In fact, to call it a mere show seems a misnomer. For Glee, gone is the old TV model of making money only off ads (nearly $300,000 per 30-second spot and rising) and syndication. Glee is a brand that, through its inventive packaging of music and the mall-ready charisma of its stars, has redefined how big a TV business can be. Among the participants at the table: the head of consumer products, playing show and tell with the new line of Glee-branded Sephora nail polish; a representative from home entertainment, passing around a Target circular featuring the Season 2, Vol. 1 DVD (the chain accounts for 25% of Glee’s entertainment sales); and vps from publicity, digital (Glee has the No. 1 iPad app) and international, touting the latest numbers out of the U.K., which make Glee the country’s most-watched U.S. series, outperforming Desperate Housewives, Lost and CSI (good news, considering the Glee tour is headed to London’s O2 arena in the summer and promoter Live Nation anticipates successive sellouts). Also on tap: a June reality show on Oxygen awarding a Glee guest role.

Although one gets the feeling that, like their Glee club stars, spontaneous eruptions of claps and “yaaaays” are de rigueur among this ensemble, on this particular Wednesday afternoon, there was even more to cheer about than usual. The show had just won three Golden Globe awards (best television series, comedy or musical, and best supporting actor and actress for Chris Colfer, who plays gay teen Kurt, and Jane Lynch, the school’s acerbic Cheerios coach), was named the No. 1 TV-franchise DVD for 2010 and had recently come off of its biggest music sales month ever, moving 6 million tracks and 1.7 million albums, including a Christmas compilation that went platinum almost overnight. All this while the show was in reruns.

When Glee returns Feb. 6, it does so in a huge way: with television’s biggest lead-in, the Super Bowl and its 100 million-plus viewers, and the promise of a spectacle on the McKinley High football field: zombies, pyrotechnics, people being shot out of cannons, unexpected kisses and a re-enactment of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” The episode’s tagline says it all: “A big night of passes, fumbles and personal fouls.” The message is classic Glee in that you can read it two ways: signature sports-speak or suggestive, hypersexual innuendo. If it works on both fronts, then it’s true to creator Ryan Murphy’s vision for the show, inspired by the movie Election. In his own words, “I wanted it to be for adults and children: subversive but where the double entendres go over the heads of 8-year-olds.”

An hour later, on the fifth floor, 20th TV chairmen Dana Walden and Gary Newman are familiarizing themselves with the concert industry as they’re debriefed on the summer tour by Azoff, Geary, Paul Management partner Jared Paul, 20th TV senior vp brand management Mark Pearson and head of music Geoff Bywater. It will be the second outing for the ensemble cast, 14 of whom are contractually bound to participate, after a four-city experiment last year that proved a runaway success. Key among them: stars Lea Michele, Cory Monteith, Amber Riley and Colfer, who’s not exactly stoked about the physical demands. “My reaction was less enthusiastic than most of the kids because I never had any aspiration to be part of the music world,” he says. “It’s also very exhausting, and last time I tore through a ligament in my right leg. But getting that immediate feedback from the fans is an adrenaline high that you can’t really describe.”

On this trek, the Gleeks graduate from theaters to arenas, with plans to hit most major U.S. markets, the U.K. and Ireland from May to July. But of all the talk of unfinished work — from merchandising decisions (one of the first items to sell out on Glee’s 2010 summer tour: a $200 replica of the McKinley varsity jacket) to VIP package strategies to scheduling rehearsals around the network upfronts in May — No. 1 on the agenda was a break for the young stars: three solid Glee-free weeks. “It’s man-da-to-ry,” Walden says with den-mother authority.

She has reason to be concerned: Long days and nights are the likely cause for a recent spate of illnesses, passed on from one cast member to the next, throwing off the already tight schedule. “That choir room is like a petri dish these days,” Lynch says. “We’ve been dropping like flies the last couple weeks.”

Glee is already on a 24/7 cycle and has been for months. In addition to the crew’s 16-hour days, songs are being produced relay-race-style on two continents so that the music never stops. Before producer Adam Anders goes to sleep in Los Angeles, he hands off the work to Peer Astrom, his partner in Sweden, who passes it back at the end of his day. Once a track is finished, it’s approved by Murphy, after which it can be recorded, choreographed, rehearsed and finally shot. Each step of the production process — and, in fact, everything Glee-related, down to the image of Lynch’s Sue Sylvester on a keychain that reads, “Face it, you want to be me” — requires Murphy’s signoff. Operating all these moving parts costs anywhere from $3.2 million to $3.8 million per episode, a 20 percent budget increase from Season 1, which in Walden and Newman’s eyes is worth every penny.

Glee is a big commitment at Fox, and Ryan is our most important creator,” Newman says. “He combines incredible intelligence with a commercial instinct and truly impeccable taste. Frequently those things don’t go together that well, but he really is an unusual combination of talents.” Glee co-star Matthew Morrison sums up Murphy this way: “Brilliantly demented. He’s got a sick brain: sick in a good way, sick in a bad way, just sick.”

Indeed, Murphy’s first series for Fox, Nip/Tuck — which aired on FX for six seasons and has been described as “twisted” — was what got Walden’s attention. “It was appointment viewing in my house,” she says. “Luckily, through Ryan’s relationship with FX, we were introduced in 2006 just as he was about to make a deal away from Warner Bros.” At the time, Murphy says, he was itching for a change: “I thought, ‘I don’t want to do another dark show about death and destruction and pain; I want something that makes me feel good, that gives me hope.’ ” Then Murphy got hold of a film script by Ian Brennan about a fledgling glee club and saw potential for a series offering an idyllic view of high school told through song. Or, as he likes to call it, “musical vitamins for kids.”

Newman wasn’t sold. “Ryan is an unbelievable storyteller — he pitches without notes but with incredible detail and paints really full characters,” Newman says. “I thought: ‘Oh God, he’s talking about a high school musical show. This is a disaster; it will never work.’ But while part of my brain is screaming that, the rest was totally engaged. It was so compelling, a fully fleshed-out world, and by the end of his pitch, it was impossible not to get on board.”

Sony Music also saw the light, not to mention dollar signs, at the potential yield of the musical component. After viewing a five-minute clip of the pilot episode, Columbia-Epic Records Label Group chairman Rob Stringer says he became “evangelical” about acquiring music rights to the Glee franchise. According to a source, three other labels had also met with the Glee team, including Universal’s Interscope Records, which passed on the project after deeming it too costly. “I thought it was the best thing I had seen since I’d been in America,” the British Stringer says. “Nothing in my mind thought it was a gamble.”

His instincts were spot-on. Glee’s take on modern hits and show-tune standards, classic songs by the likes of the Beatles and Rolling Stones and mash-ups of old and new (Rihanna’s “Umbrella” with “Singin’ in the Rain”) have made the show one of the hottest music properties in the world, with 9 million albums and 21 million downloads sold. Glee even bested the Beatles for the most songs on the Billboard Hot 100 simultaneously, and its version of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” just passed the million mark in digital sales.  

Considering the music business is one of diminishing returns, the 50-50 partnership has turned into a financial windfall for Columbia to the tune of about $100 million. Stringer won’t confirm a number but says: “It’s a very healthy addition to our bottom line. I don’t know any artist that can do 9 million albums in 15 months. That’s basically Lady Gaga territory.” 

With four volumes of Glee soundtracks in the marketplace — plus the Christmas collection and an EP of Madonna songs — the label is planning for two more this year, one in March and another in May. Add a limitless supply of cover songs, and future release possibilities are virtually endless. “It’s not like people are saying this is crap,” Stringer says. “We’re getting really good reviews for these records.”

Credit for the show’s music choices belongs almost entirely to Glee’s resident music nerd: Murphy himself. He says his only formula for considering the three to five songs that might appear in an episode is that they “offer something for everybody.” Murphy tends to favor show tunes and standards because, he says, “a lot of that stuff isn’t taught or the young audience is not exposed to it.” He first noticed a reaction from the show’s predominantly teen audience when Michele sang the Broadway showstopper “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” “It hit the Top 5 of iTunes, and I could see the Funny Girl original soundtrack rise through the ranks,” Murphy recalls of the December 2009 Season 1 finale. “That was pretty amazing, to reinterpret something that I have great fondness for and give it a whole new audience.”

Artists are seeing a ripple effect, too. While synch rates are down — the price tag for a hit song is in the vicinity of $25,000 (a fee the songwriter splits with his or her music publisher) — exposure through Glee often results in a dramatic jump in catalog sales. After September’s Britney Spears episode, the pop star sold 35,000 incremental units among five songs, one of which, “Stronger,” saw a spike of 1,160 percent, according to David Bakula, senior vp analytics at Nielsen Entertainment, who recently submitted a 70-page report titled “The Power of Glee” to Sony Music for analysis. Spears’ 2004 greatest-hits album also saw increased sales of 413 percent. “The halo effect is pretty significant,” Bakula says. “It isn’t all about tracks. Our research found that it was more about the artist as a whole.”

Still, even with Glee’s undeniable popularity and selling power, certain artists demand a premium for their songs. “We went after Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself,’ and it was jaw-droppingly expensive,” Murphy says. “Around $200,000. We couldn’t do it because the episode would’ve been so over budget.” Then there are artists whose catalogs are off-limits. Glee’s best-known rejection: Kings of Leon, who rarely license their music. Murphy’s message to nonbelievers the Followill brothers? “F--- you, Kings of Leon,” he says, raising the volume of his monotonal interview voice ever so lightly. “They’re self-centered assholes, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument. It’s like, OK, hate on arts education. You can make fun of Glee all you want, but at its heart, what we really do is turn kids on to music.”

Kings of Leon frontman Caleb Followill tells THR: “This whole Glee thing is a shock to us. It’s gotten out of hand. At the time of the request, we hadn’t even seen the show. It came at the end of that record cycle, and we were over promoting [“Use Somebody”]. This was never meant as a slap in the face to Glee or to music education or to fans of the show. We’re not sure where the anger is coming from.”

Another rock star on Murphy’s black list? Former Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, who recently revealed that he draws the licensing line at Glee. “Glee is worse than Grease, and Grease is bad enough,” he said in an interview. Murphy’s response: “Usually I find that people who make those comments, their careers are over; they’re uneducated and quite stupid.” Worth noting: GNR allowed a hokey Glee-like arrangement of “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to be used in the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy Step Brothers.

Besides, Murphy adds, tons of top-notch talent are clamoring to get on Glee. The latest to approach him for guest spots: Stevie Nicks and Jennifer Lopez, both of whom he’s trying to write in, and Anne Hathaway was recently announced (she plays Kurt’s lesbian aunt). Even former Idol judge Simon Cowell requested a sit-down with Murphy. “I went to his house, and the meeting was simply: How did you come up with this, and why didn’t I think of it?”

In a way, Glee has out-Idol’d Idol. It gets its music to market faster, and those songs are burning up the charts. It’s the sort of forward momentum few Idol alums get, and as Idol struggles to regain its credibility, it could look to its former follower for direction. Murphy insists he never saw it as competition. “We couldn’t touch Idol’s numbers,” he says. “People are unnecessarily harsh on that show. I bow down to it.”

Perhaps in a nod to Idol’s impact, Murphy is organizing a charity effort called Glee Gives Back. “We just got approved for a million dollars over the next three months to fund arts-education organizations,” he says. “It’ll also include proceeds from DVD sales. It’s very important to me and to Fox that we establish scholarships in schools.”

GLEE RULES THE ITUNES CHARTS: In the world of digital downloads, few TV franchises come close to the show’s success rate. To date, 21 million tracks by the cast have been sold — 6 million in December alone.

  • “Don’t Stop Believin’  ” (Journey) | 1.1 million
    Glee’s version charted higher than the original.
  • “Forget You” (Cee-Lo) | 466,000
    Gwyneth Paltrow’s turn as a substitute teacher yielded strong sales.
  • “Teenage Dream” (Katy Perry) | 407,000
    Darren Criss’ a cappella take shot to No. 1.
  • “Halo/Walking on Sunshine” | 332,000
    The Season 1 mash-up was a hit among Gleeks.
  • “Somebody to Love” (Queen) | 331,000
    Season 1’s Finn-Rachel duet is a fan favorite.

Source: Nielsen SoundScan

Even though one of the main criticisms of Glee is that its portrayal of high school is unrealistic, in looking back at Murphy’s  experience in Indianapolis, where he was “out” during his teens, it plays like a signature script. Take Murphy’s first concert: Hall and Oates in 1981. “I put eyeliner on to go to the show, and my mother hit the roof,” he recalls. “My parents were very Midwestern Catholic, so to be doing a pop star new-romantic look? Altar boys don’t do that. But I said, ‘No, I’m not changing how I look,’ and I got in a lot of trouble.” Once he arrived at the venue, Murphy found a community of like-minded people and “had a ball” in one of the first times it felt normal to be different.

“I don’t think Glee reflects the real world all the time; it reflects the world I wish it would be,” he says. “Within that utopia, I want every episode to end with the viewer uplifted.” For Murphy, that means rewriting the Beverly Hills, 90210 rulebook. At Ohio’s McKinley High, the kid in the wheelchair (Artie, played by Kevin McHale) can dance, the girl with Down syndrome (Becky, played by Lauren Potter) is a cheerleader, and the outcasts are popular. Even the jocks, led by sweetheart quarterback Finn (Monteith), steer clear of stereotypes, prompting us to wonder, what was Murphy’s relationship like with the football players at his school? “I dated them,” he says with a laugh. “I was popular because I was really confident. The jocks were my allies. And I had quiet little relationships with a couple of them.” 

The football fetish — which started with Episode 4 in which Colfer re-enacts Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” dance with the rest of the football team as a field-goal try — continues with the Super Bowl special. Initially, the idea was for Murphy to do a supersized episode, with Fox and NFL sponsor GM kicking in an additional $2 million. But though the sky was the limit and the network was clearly putting its faith and muscle behind his high school musical, Murphy resisted.

“We’ve taken a lot of criticism for doing tributes to Madonna, Britney Spears and Rocky Horror Picture Show … and everyone thought we were gonna try and out-top ourselves,” he says. “But no matter how big you get, you’re not gonna please everybody, so the consensus was, let’s not do a big episode of Glee, let’s do a really good episode of Glee.

“We’re editing now, and it feels similar to the pilot: a lot of heart. It’s important in that it deals with the gay bullying theme, and it’s about music bringing disparate people together. It’s quite a beautiful little fable.”

For all its warm and fuzzy intentions, Glee is not without its controversy. Murphy constantly pushes the envelope with racy scenes and she-didn’t-just-say-that zingers like the time cheerleader Santana (Naya Rivera) coos “You can drill me anytime” to a dentist played by John Stamos. “There is a line, and Ryan has upon occasion stepped over it,” Walden admits. “And when he does, he is told so by his viewers. But no risk, no reward. They don’t know where the line is unless they are pushing up against it. My kids are 7 and 10, and they aren’t allowed to watch every episode. This is a show about high school students, and the appropriate audience starts in high school, as far as I am concerned.”

Singer-songwriter Melissa Etheridge is a fan of the show and says her 13-year-old daughter “lives and breathes Glee, Lord have mercy!” Yet Etheridge, a major advocate of gay rights, admits to finding some of the subject matter a bit risque: “The teenage sex and the pregnancy, these are at the forefront of a mother’s mind.” Still, Glee advocates like Rock of Ages executive producer Janet Billig, a music industry veteran and a mother of two, say that, at the very least, racy story lines “start a conversation. I let my 8-year-old watch Glee, and we’re able to talk about relationships, being dumped by friends and boys and Kurt being gay.”

It’s a responsibility Colfer, who’s often described as the heart and soul of Glee, appreciates; his Globes acceptance speech pretty much said it all. “I get hundreds of e-mails every day from kids all around the world,” he says. “One 7-year-old wrote me that watching Kurt makes him feel like he’s not alone; others say: ‘This story line saved my life. … I felt worthless until Kurt stood up for himself.’ It means the world to them, and that makes my job so gratifying. It’s a great gig.”

One of the show’s rare missteps was the steamy October cover of GQ featuring Michele and Dianna Agron half-dressed in schoolgirl outfits and suggestive positions. “We really didn’t get a chance to handle it; it was an after-the-fact thing,” Newman says. “If we had our choice, we would have liked to have avoided it; it wasn’t great for the brand.” 

For his part, Murphy was blissfully oblivious at first. “I must be so liberal and out of touch because when I first saw that cover, I said to Gwyneth Paltrow, who was with me on set, ‘Oh, Lea looks so pretty,’ ” he recalls. But even Paltrow could see the storm clouds coming. “She said something like, ‘Get ready.’ It didn’t cross my mind there would be this big controversy. … But I never judge the actors because I know they all felt bad about it. And I think all parties involved learned a lesson about how parents look to the show as something inspirational and aspirational. We all realized that we have to be a little more careful when it comes to sexuality.”

That means the Finn masturbation scene that somehow got past broadcast standards earlier this season won’t fly, either. “I personally did not think it was too much, but I immediately heard from parents and even my gay friends who were like, ‘I wasn’t comfortable knowing that my 8-year-old niece in Maryland was watching that,’ ” Murphy says. “From now on, I will sweat every single word and how we’re presenting it.”

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Ask what Murphy is like to work with, and you’ll hear an array of adjectives ranging from “challenging” to “professional” to “no-nonsense” to “mercurial.” He sees himself as “hard and encouraging” but also giving.  “It’s very important to me to bring people up, to get more women and minorities Directors Guild cards,” he says. “When I started, it was all straight white men. It’s not that way anymore. I’ve been so lucky, but if you don’t give back, you’re just an asshole.”

And there’s one unspoken modifier, too: Murphy is vital. He plays an integral role in nearly every phase of production but especially in setting Glee’s tone. For that, he’s given a far longer leash than most showrunners. Still, there was a moment when it almost snapped.

It was August 2009, and Murphy, who had directed the 2006 film Running With Scissors, received the offer of his dreams: the movie Eat Pray Love, with Julia Roberts in the starring role. Just one problem: He and Glee co-writers Brad Falchuk and Brennan were only a few episodes into Season 1, and the trio was committed for 13. To do Love would require three months of shooting on three continents, not to mention the consent of his studio bosses, who were getting ready to launch his new show on the back of Idol. 

“It was tense,” Murphy says. “It was a very weird period in my life. Everything happened at once. I was finishing Nip/Tuck, Glee was greenlit and in production against all odds, and Julia Roberts — the most famous, highest-grossing female movie star in the history of the planet —  said yes to the movie that I believed in. I wanted to do it, and it was very difficult because they never said no to me. Fox, Amy Pascal at Sony, Dana — none of them wanted to take someone’s dream away, so I really had to make some promises.”

The decision to let Murphy embark on his Love adventure was “highly unusual,” Walden recalls. “It involved a huge leap of faith on our part and a huge degree of trust in Ryan. To say no would have been the end of our relationship with him and the wrong decision in a partnership.”

As Glee legend goes, Falchuk and Brennan flew around the world to write with Murphy whenever he could spare the time. The Madonna episode, in fact, was conceived beachside in Bali on a 110-degree day. “I really did admire how everybody handled it,” Murphy says. “I feel very loyal to that group of people now because they believed in me.”

It does, however, point to an uncertain future. With Murphy’s Glee contract up at the end of Season 5 and the cast due to graduate at some point (“just because they leave this school doesn’t mean they can’t go to another one,” he hints), can the show continue to churn out stars, ratings, quality music and good stories without him? As much as he can, Murphy is working to ensure Glee’s longevity by setting up story lines and the constant introduction of new characters.

“Chord Overstreet was new and really caught on this season, and Darren Criss has become one of our biggest recording stars ever,” Murphy says. “Next year, we’ll add two to four new people and every year as the show continues. I won’t be doing it forever — or past my agreement. Then it will become somebody else’s dilemma.”

With that admission, the Fox credo of gleeful optimism fades as Walden contemplates life without her friend and collaborator.  “The pop culture magic that surrounds this show, Ryan brings,” she says. “The character development, the story lines — Ian and Brad can do those parts ultimately if they had to. But I don’t think I would want to do Glee without Ryan altogether. I’d hope he’d have some minimal involvement.”

Adds Newman: “I think a creator like him has to be handled really carefully by a studio. But, the last thing we’re worrying about is some post-Ryan era.” Murphy shares that sentiment: “I’m just trying to get past the Super Bowl,” he says.

Besides, Fox might have a bigger Glee headache to deal with: the imminent salary renegotiation with members of its ensemble cast. “With a series that’s this successful, it’s not unusual that people would have to renegotiate contracts,” Newman says. “My guess is over the course of the next year, we’ll be having those conversations with representatives of the cast and hope that we can find areas of agreement to increase their compensation and get what we need in terms of additional services.”

Those services include participation in the tour, recording obligations, options for three movies at Fox, promotional appearances, press, attendance at Fox events, charitable endeavors and, of course, all that merchandising. On the actors’ side, several are juggling solo music careers and movie offers. To shoot Garry Marshall’s New Year’s Eve, co-starring Michelle Pfeiffer, Halle Berry and Ashton Kutcher, Murphy is writing Michele out for several days in February and March, “so she can go back and forth and do the movie,” he says. “We’re doing that with Darren, too, who has an existing movie career. In success, you should have more success.”

At the same time, they’re mindful of not hijacking their actors’ time so much that they make a Friends-like pact and revolt. But if it happens, that’s cool, too, Murphy says. “I expect and encourage it. I think everybody should do whatever they can so they feel happy and taken care of. I don’t want anybody to come to work feeling like: ‘F--- you. You don’t care about me.’ For the first 13 episodes, all of us were like, ‘whatever it takes,’ including those kids. Then we got successful, and they were like, ‘OK, a little less what it takes, a little more, ‘We wanna go home and have a life.’ A lot of companies might be like: ‘Go screw yourself.’ We realize that it’s a little different now, and we’re starting to reach out to different actors and representatives and come up with pay raises and movie outs.”

Whether those pay bumps end up on the level of The Big Bang Theory will depend largely on Season 2’s numbers, which should get a substantial Super Bowl spike, but one thing’s for sure: It will be an awfully long way to come in a short amount of time for such Broadway stars as Morrison and Michele, who both earned union pay of $1,800 a week, by Billig’s estimation, while they starred in Tony-nominated shows. “The jump from stage to TV is astronomical,” she says. 

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Glee has yet to hit its peak, and the frenzy will only intensify during the coming months. “I think these kids have handled fame very, very well, but it’s hard for a lot of them,” Murphy says. “Like Chris Colfer. I’ve seen it where he’s at a party and every gay person within a three-mile radius is suddenly up in his face. … At the same time, I tell them: ‘This will not last forever. You will not be on TV forever. You will not have the opportunity to perform in the 02 Arena forever. You will not be going to the Golden Globes forever. Try to enjoy it.’”

It’s advice the poker-faced Murphy might want to take himself and smile every so often.  He’s earned it.

-- Additional reporting by Marisa Guthrie

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