TV shows leap from tube to town halls

'Glee' just the latest show to take the brand on the road

As the TV biz grapples with auds’ drift to multiplatform viewing, nets and studios are increasingly embracing the oldest platform of all — the stage — to generate promotion and profits.

The “Glee” kids are the latest TV show personalities to hit the road. The Fox tuner March 1 announced plans for seven concerts in four cities in May at such sizable venues as Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall and L.A.’s Gibson Amphitheater. (On March 5, the “Glee” express added a third show at Radio City Music Hall because demand for ducats was so strong.)

“American Idol,” of course, has been raking in the megabucks with its annual summer jaunt featuring top 10 finalists. “Dancing With the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” also send their hoofers on tours at the end of every season.

But it’s not just performance-driven shows that are taking it to the stage these days. The cast of FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” did a whirlwind swing last fall that was successful beyond the most optimistic expectations. Denis Leary mounted the “Rescue Me Comedy Tour” last year with Lenny Clarke and other cast members to promote the fifth season of the FX drama. Comedy Central is prepping a college tour later this year for a group of “Daily Show With Jon Stewart” correspondents.

Why the rush to the road?

It’s largely driven by the desire for promotion, network branding and talent development rather than profits — unless it’s a property like “American Idol” that can play in 8,000- to 15,000-seat arenas. For most other projects, the big win is the ability to deepen a fan’s affinity for a TV show by bringing it to life in a wholly different, up-close-and-personal medium.

The push to extend TV-centric brands to live settings is also changing the nature of talent contracts.

The thesps on 20th Century Fox TV’s “Glee” were signed to omnibus contracts covering recording, touring and merchandising activities from the moment they were cast in the pilot more than two years ago. As shows ranging from “Family Guy” to “Flight of the Conchords” to “Hannah Montana” have spawned live extensions, producers are attuned to the need to lock in all kinds of unusual rights and commitments at the earliest stage of a TV project’s gestation.

Concert biz watchers predict the “Glee Live! In Concert!” shows, which began May 18 at Phoenix’s 5,000-seat Dodge Theater, will hit a high note for Fox and bring in strong grosses. Although “Glee’s” tour is small-scale by design, there is gold to be mined: “Idol’s” summer tour last year moved 484,000 ducats, grossing $30.1 million from 52 dates.

“The fact that a parade of major artists are falling all over themselves to try to get their music on (“Glee”) speaks to the power of that show, and bodes extremely well for the prospects for that tour,” says Gary Bongiovanni, editor in chief of concert tracking site Pollstar.

Given its tuner format, “Glee” was a natural for a stage show. But “Sunny in Philadelphia,” the raunchy cult-fave comedy about misfits who run a dingy bar, hardly seemed like a candidate.

Live Nation approached the “Sunny” camp about a six-city jaunt after the cast did a well-received one-off perf at Los Angeles’ Troubadour nightclub at the invitation of a friend in March 2009. The show was essentially a restaging of an episode, “The Nightman Cometh,” that involved the gang performing a rock opera at a community theater. The first half of the live show was performed as if it were a play — which was a departure for the actors, accustomed to the single-camera shooting format of the series — and the second half was performed as if the characters were onstage at the community theater.

No one was more surprised by the Live Nation offer than the “Sunny” team. But FX got behind the concept as a promo vehicle for the show’s fifth-season bow last fall. There was no trouble selling out — inside of 20 minutes — venues like Gotham’s Beacon Theater, Boston’s House of Blues and the Hollywood Palladium.

“It was mindblowing how well it did,” says Geof Wills, prexy of Live Nation Comedy. “I thought they would sell quickly, but it was amazing.”

After expenses were paid, the short swing wasn’t a huge moneymaker for the talent or FX, but it paid off in generating heat for “Sunny,” which saw its viewership jump 45% from season four to season five (to an average of 2.3 million viewers from 1.6 million). The “Sunny” team gladly would have done more dates, but it couldn’t take the time away from working on the series, according to co-creator/exec producer and star Rob McElhenney.

In hindsight, McElhenney says, it was clear that sales were fueled by the fact that “Sunny” fans have such a strong communal experience with the show. It was that passion, as demonstrated on blogs and via Google searches, etc., that convinced Wills the show was a good bet for a nontraditional tour.

“Anybody who brought a friend to the theater left the place saying that they were going to tell 10 other friends to watch the (TV) show,” McIlhenney says. “When you have 4,000 people screaming whole paragraphs of dialogue, you realize how much people are watching these episodes over and over again.”

The “Sunny” production of a single episode is but one route for a TV-to-stage transfer. The “Family Guy Live” shows put on periodically by Seth MacFarlane and his troupe encompass a table read of a seg, musical numbers from cast members, an aud Q&A and a preview of an episode.

Comedy Central, which has been in the standup touring biz for nearly a decade, is experimenting with the idea of hosting a comedy workshop before some of its shows to give fans a chance to learn how comics write their material, what it’s like to write for TV and other behind-the-scenes issues. The idea is to accrue good will with hardcore comedy fans that translates to good will for the cabler, according to Mitch Fried, senior veep of Comedy Central Live Entertainment.

By the time expenses are covered and talent is paid (typically 70% to 100% of the gate after expenses), there’s not much left over for Comedy Central — but that’s not the point, says Fried. There’s simply no better way to brand the cabler and groom new talent.

“What we get out of this is stronger talent relations, stronger relationships with our advertisers and stronger relationships with our viewers,” Fried says. “Comedy Central is an ad-supported network, and that’s where we make our money.”

Fried cites the recent example of Gabriel Iglesias, a rising star who is on the road under the Comedy Central Live banner, has had a standup special on the cabler and is doing solid business with DVD sales of that special. All of those avenues of exposure combine to burnish Iglesias’ reputation and prep him for the next level of his career, Fried says.

Stoking the fan-demonium for “Glee” is a big reason 20th Century Fox TV decided to trigger the concert push for the show. After all of 13 episodes, “Glee” has become a poster child for the new ways in which TV properties are marketed and exploited well beyond the confines of the smallscreen.

“We recognized about five or six years ago with some of our properties that generate an intense fan following that the old-fashioned model of a TV studio just producing shows and turning them over to a network is no longer the business we’re in,” says 20th chairman Gary Newman.

Two albums of tunes from “Glee” released last year have sold a whopping 1.27 million copies to date, on top of 4 million individual song downloads. The studio’s licensing and merchandising arm is prepping a line of “Glee”-branded items that will hit retail in the fall.

“We believe that if we’re going to survive in this business, we have to find ways to reach out to consumers and build relationships. In a digital world, it’s far easier to connect directly with the consumer,” Newman says. “?’Glee’ is one of those properties where we bring together every division of the company for regular meetings to figure out how we coordinate our efforts to make a true 360(-degree) experience for our fans.”

Newman credits the smarts and savvy of “Glee” co-creator/exec producer Ryan Murphy with allowing Fox to pursue so many avenues for the show, set in a Midwestern high school where an earnest teacher recruits a motley group of students to revive the fortunes of its once-proud glee club.

“Our biggest issue is limiting what we do with it so we don’t overexpose it,” Newman says.

Disney, of course, has been in the 360-experience biz with its kid- and family-friendly programming for years. The Mouse House scored a big touring hit off the back of Disney Channel’s “Cheetah Girls” telepics, about a girl rock band, which moved more than 900,000 ducats in two tours between 2006 and 2008.

The “High School Musical” crew shifted more than 500,000 tickets across 42 dates in North America in 2006 and 2007 after the first two telepics drew record ratings for Disney Channel. “HSM” did 200,000 more in sales across 10 dates in Latin America. The “Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds” tour remains the gold standard, grossing more than $53 million from nearly million tickets sold for 70 dates in 2007-08. (A “Best of Both Worlds” 3D concert pic brought in an additional $65.2 million domestically.)

The brainstorming about possible live extensions of Disney properties begins at the outset of development. It’s part of the mandate from prexy and CEO Bob Iger to focus on projects that can extend into many venues beyond their initial release platform.

“It’s one of the ways we measure our success,” says Adam Sanderson, senior veep of brand marketing for Disney-ABC Television Group. “Live entertainment is something that parents have come to expect from Disney. Parents are able to share an experience in a way that creates an unbelievable bond.”

Disney’s research in the area has shown that even today’s digitally wired tots still crave a live, communal experience. “They still want to be part of something bigger (than a TV show) and share the experience with friends,” Sanderson says. “The opportunity to sing and dance or scream out loud at a concert is incredibly exciting.”

From a talent perspective, moppets in Disney shows are often afforded opportunities to hone their skills as performers onstage, as recording artists and in nontraditional venues, like theme parks. There has been some criticism of Disney’s all-encompassing talent deals offering paltry pay to young performers, but there’s little doubt that the Mouse House U. experience can enhance a performer’s skills over the long haul.

“For a lot of our talent, our shows are the first time they’ve ever performed live in such a big production,” Sanderson says. “We can offer amazing opportunities — not just to shoot 26 episodes of a show but the opportunity to record an album, go on tour, be part of merchandising efforts. All of that is wrapped up in how we build talent.”

The same is true for the participants in the “American Idol” and “So You Think You Can Dance” tours. In a matter of months, a contestant can go from working as a waitress or a bookkeeper to getting paid to perform as part of a tour, says Joe Earley, exec veep of marketing and communications for Fox.

Auds seem to have a particularly strong connection with “Idol” concerts because fans have already invested so much in voting for their fave contestants, says Iain Pirie, head of U.S. operations for 19 Entertainment, which produces the “Idol” and “Dance” tours with AEG Live.

“Idol’s” steady success on the road reflects the way people enjoy being entertained these days, Pirie says. “You have a personal connection with what you’ve seen on TV — you’re seeing the product of your own voting. … You can’t count the number of times you hear people shouting ‘I voted for you.’?”