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EXCLUSIVE: Inside the Hot Business of 'Glee'

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Issue 04 Cover Glee
Joe Pugliese

The new Hollywood Reporter goes deep inside the war room with cast and execs to look at the forces that have made Fox’s hit show a half-billion-dollar franchise, as they also open up about looming cast salary negotiations, that Kings of Leon snub (everyone's mad!) and an eventual future without creator Ryan Murphy.

The following story appears in the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter available on newsstands Thursday.

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. GALLERY: Go behind the scenes of Glee.

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. RELATED: Ryan Murphy's reluctant participation in The Glee Project.

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."

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