In May 2009, Kevin Reilly was about to take one of the biggest risks of his career. Fox's entertainment president made the pivotal choice to debut the pilot for "Glee," a high school-set musical comedy, after the season finale of "American Idol" -- and a whopping four months before its regular season was slated to roll out. The choice was largely unprecedented, and not universally liked.
"The rating was OK," Mr. Reilly recalled in an interview with Ad Age last November. "A lot of people had the glass half empty. They'd say, 'If it didn't do well after 'Idol,' how's it gonna do on its own?'"
Two years later, "Glee" is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon. Created by Ryan Murphy ("Nip/Tuck") and produced by 20th Century Fox Television, "Glee" can not only hold its own in the ratings , it can also produce hit songs, fill concert venues and launch careers. The show leads Fox's Tuesday-night schedule and regularly pulls in more than 9.5 million to 11 million viewers each week. More than 130 singles have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 since its debut, beating Elvis Presley's record (108) for most chart entries by a single artist. An 18-city North American concert tour is nearly sold out, following a sold-out four-city tour in 2010.
The main strategy behind premiering "Glee" so prematurely was to find early fans -- "Gleeks" as Fox's marketing department branded them and followers soon named themselves. "When I delivered the pilot, fortunately [Fox marketing chief] Joe Earley couldn't wait to get to town on it," Mr. Reilly said. The network loved the fact that "Glee" didn't fit easily into any categories. "Many people have tried musicals on TV and they've never worked," Mr. Reilly said. "It had elements of a comedy but it's not a half hour. It was niche and broad. That's why it's cool."
At a time when Twitter and word-of -mouth can boost a show's ratings ("American Idol" and "Dancing With the Stars" have benefited from real-time social-media viewing), "Glee" leads the charge for scripted series. In media agency Optimedia's recent Content Power Ratings 4.0 report, "Glee" finished second out of all TV shows for having the most combined live ratings , Facebook fans (13 million) and press coverage than any show next to "American Idol."
Marketers have taken notice in a big way. American Express has tapped various cast members for custom spots, General Motors recruited the cast for a Busby Berkeley-esque Super Bowl spot to update the jingle "See the USA in Your Chevrolet," while Google debuted its "It Gets Better"-themed spot for its Chrome browser during a recent episode.
Consumer products has also become a reported $75 million-and-counting business for the show, with "Glee" merchandise sold in Claire's and Macy's stores, a 99-cent iPhone app with more than 1 million downloads and a popular "Karaoke Revolution" game for the Nintendo Wii.
As "Glee" readies its third season, there will be plenty to tide Gleeks over this summer. In June, NBC Universal's Oxygen debuts "The Glee Project," a reality-competition series in which die-hard Gleeks compete for a guest-starring role on "Glee's" third season. "Glee," said Jason Klarman, president of Oxygen Media, "speaks to our 'live out loud' brand in a way few shows do at this moment in the culture. It's about living life on your own terms, which is so core to who we are." And on Aug. 14, 20th Century Fox Film will release "Glee Live! 3D!," a concert film comprised of footage from this summer's "Glee! Live! In Concert" tour.
But if you want the real secret to "Glee's" success, Mr. Reilly points to one person. "This is a great show with a singular vision of a creator in Ryan Murphy," he said. "If you can connect with that vision and market it, it's an extraordinary thing. A lot of these elements were baked into the show -- he really had a specific visual style in mind. His fingerprints are very much all over it. There's no piece he isn't touching in some way."