'Carpool Karaoke' Spinoff Premieres as Apple Content Ambitions Grow

Carpool Karaoke John Legend Alicia Keys - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of Apple Music

The series, based on the popular 'Late Late Show' segment, premieres Tuesday, Aug. 8, on Apple Music.

On Monday night at Chateau Marmont, CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves sat chatting with James Corden at the party to celebrate the premiere of the Late Late Show host's newest show, a spinoff of his popular "Carpool Karaoke" segment. Later, as guests noshed on falafel and mini hamburgers — and after speeches from "Carpool Karaoke" producer Ben Winston and Apple executive Jimmy IovineCorden told everyone to drink up because "Apple's doing quite well in the stocks." 

It was a true Hollywood outing for Apple, which up until 2016 when it began striking deals with producers such as Winston and Propagate Content's Ben Silverman, spent years deflecting rumors about its entertainment ambitions. "Carpool Karaoke," which premieres Tuesday on Apple Music, represents Apple’s second stab at original programming following the June premiere of Planet of the Apps, a reality series produced by Silverman that saw mentors including Jessica Alba and will.i.am help app developers pitch investors on their big ideas. The shows are meant to lure more subscribers to the subscription music service, which costs $10 per month and competes with products such as Spotify and Tidal. 

Much like with Planet of the Apps, Apple is sticking close to what it knows with "Carpool" — in this case, music. The unscripted "Carpool" riffs on the popular Late Late Show segment by featuring pairs of celebrities, often musicians, as they drive around Los Angeles and other cities while singing along to the radio. The 20-episode series, which after its premiere will release two episodes per week, will show off groupings such as Billy Eichner and Metallica, John Legend and Alicia Keys and the entire Cyrus family fronted by Miley Cyrus. The show even comes with its own companion playlist on Apple Music.

“Obviously the connection with Apple Music is awesome,” says Apple senior vp Eddy Cue. Executive producer and showrunner Eric Pankowski agrees. The shows, he says, is "the perfect fit for their relevance in music and pop culture."

Corden and Winston first began shopping the idea of a "Carpool" spinoff in 2016 after the segment’s early success, helping boost the profile of the Late Late Show's new host with videos that regularly went viral. To wit, Corden’s interview with Adele from last year is the show’s most-viewed video on YouTube with 165 million views. Segments with Justin Bieber, One Direction, Sia and Selena Gomez round out the channel's top five. Though Corden and Winston pitched the project elsewhere, they say it was hard to say "no" to the prospect of becoming one of Apple’s first original series. “Yes, they’re new to television, but ultimately, they’re still Apple,” says Corden. “To be associated with them was just a dream come true for us. We were very excited about being one of the first shows they’ll ever do, probably the first of many.”

"Carpool" could also come to be known as one of the few projects developed before Apple made its first big high-profile Hollywood hire. In June, just days after Planet of the Apps dropped to Apple Music subscribers, the iPhone maker announced that it had tapped Sony Pictures Television co-presidents Jamie Erlicht and Zack Van Amburg to lead its programming push. The move was largely seen as a signal to Hollywood that Apple was ready to make a bigger investment in premium programming. Erlicht and Van Amburg will begin working for Apple in September, but in the meantime the company is continuing its original programming rollout.  

Planet of the Apps drew audiences by playing up its big-name hosts. With "Carpool," Apple can tap into an existing audience already familiar with the late night segments. “We don’t really have to tell people what 'Carpool Karaoke' is,” notes Cue.

But there are risks associated with adapting an already beloved property for a new platform. Corden, for example, won’t appear in every episode. He hosts the premiere and finale with appearances sprinkle throughout, but the remaining episodes feature guest hosts such as Chelsea Handler and Trevor Noah. “He’s an amazing talent at bringing stuff out of people and singing with them,” Winston says of Corden. “Of course when we were setting out to make this show, we were concerned with it. How do you make 'Carpool' without James Corden? But now, watching the show and looking at the 20 episodes we have, we’ve answered that in quite an emphatic way, really. The answer is to get really fascinating people, pairings you want to see, doing things you wouldn’t usually see them doing.”

That’s how "Carpool" ended up with pairings such as Game of Thrones stars Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams, and Shaquille O'Neal and John Cena. “You get great results and see interviews and moments with these people that you’d never see otherwise,” adds Winston. “That’s whether James is in the car or not.”

The episodes are also about double the length of the typical segment on the Late Late Show, meaning that there was more time to fill with conversations, songs and wacky adventures. But Cue notes that he didn’t ask for episodes to meet a certain length. “I never asked them for a half hour,” he says. “Our view around it was, create what you guys think is a great show. If one’s shorter or one’s longer, that’s fine.” Adds Pankowski, “They really embraced the idea of letting the creative dictate what the show would become. The idea that we didn’t have to hit arbitrary times like you do in broadcast and cable TV was liberating creatively.”

At one time, Apple had planned on premiering "Carpool," but the debut was ultimately pushed to late summer. Cue says he wanted to release it once all the shows were finished because of a plan to release two episodes a week (excluding the premiere and the finale). And Corden explains that after their order was upped from 16 to 20, a delayed start gave them more time to finish shooting the additional episodes.

While Hollywood has been hotly anticipating Apple's entrance into the original programming game, the $820 billion company is still a newcomer to the video space. But the "Carpool" team says it isn't concerned about people finding the show on Apple Music, which reaches 27 million subscribers. “It’s a sign of how people consume content now,” says Pankowski. “As opposed to television where you have to wait for a certain day and time, with Apple it’s available on your phone, your iPad, your computer, your Apple TV.”