For a small network, the WB has had a big impact on the way TV producers use pop music to tell their stories.
Until relatively recently, getting music rights from even slightly famous artists usually meant one thing: forking over a ton of cash. Not surprisingly, except on music-driven skeins such as “Fame” or “Miami Vice,” primetime producers rarely felt compelled to blow their limited budgets to snag top tunes.
Then came the Frog.
Producers of early WB hits “Dawson’s Creek,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “Felicity” didn’t view music as a luxury. It was an essential storytelling tool.
“It became quite apparent how strong a role music would play but we also realized very early on that music could be expensive,” says WB marketing prexy Lew Goldstein.
The solution would come from something else Goldstein had noticed.
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When “Buffy” producer Joss Whedon would feature songs by emerging artists who weren’t getting exposure on mainstream radio, both airplay and sales would increase after an appearance on the WB.
The WB’s emerging power was such that even using a song in a promo hyping a show could move records. Case in point: “Dawson’s Creek,” whose theme song “I Don’t Wanna Wait” by Paula Cole, was given a major boost by its use in the Frog’s massive launch campaign for “Creek.”
“The song created such a powerful impression in the promos, DJs were calling it the ‘Dawson’s Creek’ song,” Goldstein says.
Goldstein and his staff began brainstorming, searching for ways to maximize the promo power of the Frog while at the same time convincing labels to reduce the rates they charged to use songs. The idea finally came to them: What if, at the end of an episode of a WB show, a card appeared announcing the names of some of the songs used in the seg?
“We put together a meeting of all of the labels, and when we told them our idea, they flipped,” Goldstein remembers. “They couldn’t believe the opportunity we were giving them. It was unprecedented.”
Leonard Richardson, VP of music at the Frog, says producers had to give up something as well. Every second of airtime on a network is worth thousands of dollars, and the Frog wasn’t simply going to give away up to 30 seconds of primetime for what was, essentially, a mini-ad for individual artists.
“The producers all had to (cut) time out of their episodes,” he recalls.
It seemed a fair trade, however. Hip music soon became a staple on most WB dramas, and soon the net was looking for other ways to capitalize on the fact that the Frog’s core aud of viewers 12-34 also happen to be big music buyers.
Rather than simply wait for producers or music supervisors to suggest songs, the WB began actively cultivating relationships with labels. Richardson came on board in 2000 to oversee the use of tunes in promos as well as in individual skeins.
“If you walked into my office, you couldn’t see my head because of the stacks of CDs,” Richardson quips.
Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Moby stopped by the WB to let execs listen to tracks from his latest album, which is set to be released in March. And when REM’s label was looking to push the band’s fall release, an idea was hatched to fill an entire episode of “Smallville” with songs from the group’s back catalog.
Last year also saw the release of a WB-branded CD featuring emerging artists, the first of what could be several brand extensions tied to the net’s association with music.
The Frog’s success has, not surprisingly, spawned imitators.
It’s now commonplace for other nets to use title cards to tout artists heard during a show. Nets have also stolen the WB’s strategy of using emerging hits in promos: Fox, for example, spent much of January blasting Green Day’s “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” during spots for new drama “Jonny Zero.”
The competish has become so fierce that nets and studios end up battling for rights to the same song. Last fall, for example, both CBS and ABC wanted to use Five for Fighting’s “100 Years” as the theme song for new shows (the Eye won).
Goldstein isn’t bothered by his rivals’ newfound interest in music.
The labels, he says, “understand the way we use music” and know when a song will have more impact appearing on the WB than, say, CBS.
“We’re not going to just take the biggest pop song out there and throw it on a show because it’s ‘cool,’ ” Goldstein says. “For us, it’s about using music in a way that doesn’t seem contrived.”