‘Letterman’ webcasts hit their stride

Recent acts include Perry, Paisley, Gorillaz

A few years ago, a handful of music lovers at CBS realized that there was great material to be mined for the Internet from all the rehearsal and preparations that top musical acts go through for a one-song shot on “Late Show With David Letterman.”

In the past few months, the “Live on Letterman” webcasts have hit their stride, turning into a cottage industry for CBS, one that draws on the resources of multiple Eye divisions. It also generates strong promotion for “Late Show” and for the acts. Bon Jovi is the latest big-name act to take part with an hourlong webcast set for today, followed on Nov. 15 by Rascal Flatts.

AT&T has come on board as a sponsor of the series, which helps the Eye cover the costs of production, which aren’t much because it’s produced out of Letterman’s ample facilities at the Ed Sullivan Theater. Recent acts on the “Live on Letterman” roster include Katy Perry, Brad Paisley, My Morning Jacket and Gorillaz.

The inspiration for the webcasts came back in 2006 when Pearl Jam stopped by the Letterman show.

“We just started thinking, these bands do their huge load-ins and then they do one song. So we said, ‘Let’s do it for the Internet,'” Vinnie Favale, CBS’ veep for late night programs, East Coast.

At that time, the quality of Web video wasn’t very good, but CBS execs realized that the concept was a no-brainer, especially for a company with a whole lot of radio stations and a budding music division.

“We realized it’s a great business model,” Favale said, in part because it allows CBS to get more bang for the bucks it already spends on producing Letterman and maintaining the Sullivan Theater. The webcasts are also broadcast on some of CBS’ radio stations and heavily promoted on-air.

The big break for the webcasts came in July 2009, when Paul McCartney returned to the Ed Sullivan Theater (a place he knew well from Beatles days) and played an impromptu midday concert atop the “Late Show” marquee. That made for great visuals, and his roaring set became a monster Web hit for CBS.com and its affiliates.

Favale credits CBS Interactive Music prexy David Goodman for realizing after the McCartney show that the webcasts could bring in advertising coin if they were skedded as a series.

The goal was to “focus on super-sizing some of these artists when they come in,” Goodman said. “We thought, ‘There’s an artist that’s already loaded in who’s just doing one song — let’s take advantage of that.'”

So far, according to “Late Show” director Jerry Foley, budgetary constraints haven’t really been an issue.

“We haven’t had any discussions where we were clamoring for more resources,” he said. “We try to be reasonable about it, and they’re very supportive.”

Big-name acts have been remarkably open to the webcast venture, something that Goodman credits to the strength of the relationships built up over the years by “Late Show” staffers Sheryl Zelikson, music segment producer, and producer Sheila Rogers.

“From an artist’s perspective, you get a huge amount of pre-promotion and a huge amount of post-promotion in terms of driving album sales and tours,” Goodman said. “Radio is core and the Web is core, and we’re doing them both with Letterman, which is a brand that has a tremendous amount of integrity and credibility.”

In the control room on the Nov. 3 webcast with country star Paisley, the atmosphere was both casual and tense.

“The pressure! The pressure! I can’t handle the pressure!” Foley joked. Though careful in conversation, Foley became focused and even expansive as the cameras (more than a dozen) began to move, barking cues (“Music!” “Announce!”) to his crew as he orchestrated the shoot.

Behind him, in front of a row of computer monitors, Favale, a former on-air personality with Howard Stern’s radio show, was busily showing off the webcast’s various bells and whistles. It takes about 15 seconds for the footage to make it out of the studio and onto a personal computer, it turned out, and slightly longer to show up on Favale’s iPad, where the Vevo app streamed the concert. Next to the video box, there’s a series of live updates that Favale happily admitted to monkeying with to see if he could boost traffic.

“So I see a Facebook icon, and I see a chat and I’m like, oh, we must be promoting through Facebook,” Favale said in the same joyful tones he once used to recount embarrassing anecdotes on Stern’s radio show.

There’s less than a week of prep between this concert and the next one, but Favale says the busy sked doesn’t worry him.

“In a good way, it’s like ‘Holy crap, now (CBS) actually wants them.’ Half the time (the artists) want to do it but you can’t assume they’re always going to be available. Now, mechanically, the question is, how many of them can we do?”