IN THE ‘CARPOOL’ LANE WITH APPLE MU­SIC

Apple Mu­sic hopes its spin on the pop­u­lar late-night seg­ment will help it boost its orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming.

Los Angeles Times - - CALENDAR - By Yvonne Vil­lar­real yvonne.vil­lar­real@la­times.com

“How many peo­ple have watched the video?”

James Cor­den is thumb­ing through texts on his cell­phone in­side his “Late Late Show” of­fice at CBS Tele­vi­sion Stu­dios in the Fair­fax district. It’s the day af­ter the lat­est Carpool Karaoke seg­ment — fea­tur­ing the ve­hic­u­lar vo­cals of R&B star Usher — has aired, and Cor­den wants to know whether ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Ben Win­ston, seated next to him, has the lat­est in­tel on the video’s vi­ral sta­tus.

“I haven’t heard back,” Win­ston, also checking his phone, says to Cor­den. “On YouTube, it slows down. So it’s usu­ally dou­ble the amount — on the first day, it will be ei­ther dou­ble or triple the amount of show­ings. It says 2.3 mil­lion. So it’s prob­a­bly around 4 mil­lion.”

“It’s still No. 1,” Cor­den replies, ver­i­fy­ing its rank­ing on YouTube. (By the time this ar­ti­cle went to press, the num­ber would grow to more than 11 mil­lion.)

In the three years since he took over as host of the CBS late-night talk show, the Bri­tish co­me­dian has made rid­ing in cars with stars Must Search-and-Click TV. The seg­ment, in which Cor­den helms the wheel as he sings along with some of mu­sic’s most pop­u­lar artists, has fea­tured ev­ery­one from Adele and Ste­vie Won­der to Justin Bieber and Brit­ney Spears — and has emerged as a venue for celebs to jam out like no one is watch­ing (ex­cept mil­lions of peo­ple).

And now Apple, one of the rich­est com­pa­nies in tech­nol­ogy, is hop­ing the seg­ment’s vi­ral heft will help bol­ster its sub­scrip­tion ser­vice, Apple Mu­sic, in its orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming am­bi­tions as the com­pany looks to strengthen its pres­ence in en­ter­tain­ment.

“Carpool Karaoke: The Series,” a su­per­sized dig­i­tal adap­tion of the “Late Late Show” bit, de­buts on Apple Mu­sic on Tues­day.

“They are at the fore­front of mu­sic,” Cor­den says. “So a mu­sicbased show with all these dif­fer­ent peo­ple — it just seemed like Apple Mu­sic would be the right part­ners for us.”

When, not if, Apple would dive into the orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming space and chal­lenge stream­ing com­pa­nies such as Netf lix and Ama­zon has long been a ques­tion in­dus­try in­sid­ers have won­dered.

Apple on the move

The com­pany an­nounced this year its plan to more earnestly join the orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming space to help dis­tin­guish Apple Mu­sic, the tech gi­ant’s $9.99-a-month mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice, from such ri­vals as Spo­tify and Tidal — but the com­pany has taken a mostly un­hur­ried ap­proach. It un­veiled its first series, “Planet of the Apps,” a tech-con­test re­al­ity show in the vein of “Shark Tank,” in June to lit­tle fan­fare. Now comes the splashier “Carpool Karaoke: The Series.”

Sig­nal­ing an even big­ger in­di­ca­tion of its Hol­ly­wood am­bi­tions, the Cu­per­tino, Calif.- based com­pany an­nounced in June that it had tapped two Sony tele­vi­sion stu­dio vet­er­ans, Jamie Er­licht and Zack Van Am­burg, to over­see the com­pany’s grow­ing orig­i­nal pro­gram­ming busi­ness.

Eddy Cue, Apple’s se­nior vice pres­i­dent of In­ter­net soft­ware and ser­vices, was care­ful not to make any bold claims about Apple’s goals in the space — fo­cus­ing on the com­pany’s cur­rent launch.

“For Apple Mu­sic, ‘Carpool’ is per­fect,” said Cue, who cites Bruce Spring­steen’s “Born to Run” as his go-to karaoke tune. “It’s a nat­u­ral ex­ten­sion to the cus­tomers and sub­scribers that we do have and keep­ing them com­ing to Apple Mu­sic even more of­ten for more things. For other folks who may not have tried it, this may be the thing to bring them to try it out. On the Jamie and Zack front, it’s too early … Hope­fully, there will be a lot more from us to talk about.”

But if any­one can make bold claims, it may be Apple, which has more than $250 bil­lion in cash.

“Net­flix proves one thing: If you have great tech­nol­ogy and are will­ing to out­spend your peers, you can have ac­cess to the best con­tent,” said Richard Green­field, a me­dia an­a­lyst at BTIG Re­search. “Apple has enough cash to buy es­sen­tially the en­tire legacy me­dia in­dus­try. They have in­cred­i­bly deep pock­ets to at­tack some­thing.… I don’t think there’s any way to stop them from mak­ing a ma­jor dent. Ob­vi­ously, it’s now an ex­e­cu­tion story. They’ve got to ac­tu­ally prove it.”

“Carpool Karaoke: The Series” is at least help­ing to lay the foun­da­tion. And Apple seems hope­ful about the part­ner­ship. At the un­veil­ing of the iPhone 7 last year, just months af­ter an­nounc­ing its li­cens­ing agree­ment with CBS Tele­vi­sion Stu­dios for the series, a video of Cor­den driv­ing around Apple Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Tim Cook, dur­ing which the men per­formed OneRepub­lic’s “I Lived” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” kicked off the event.

It’s a turn of events that can be traced back to a call Cor­den re­ceived from mu­sic pro­ducer Jimmy Iovine, who spear­headed the launch of Apple’s mu­sic stream­ing ser­vice.

It was 2015 and Iovine had just watched the Carpool Karaoke seg­ment with Won­der (a video that has since notched more than 35 mil­lion views on YouTube.).

“He said, ‘I want you to come to Mal­ibu and have din­ner with me,’ ” Cor­den says. “We sat down on the beach and had this long chat. The great thing about Jimmy is noth­ing’s im­pos­si­ble. We weren’t even talk­ing that night about mak­ing a show for Apple or any­thing. But he gave me, and us, a real con­fi­dence in what we were do­ing.”

Cor­den and Win­ston couldn’t quite pin­point when the idea to ex­pand the seg­ment into a series be­gan to ger­mi­nate. But it started to take shape, they say, largely be­cause so many artists were ask­ing to be a part of it — and video views showed an ap­petite for more.

“We’ve had to im­ple­ment what we con­sider our sort of rules of when we do it on our show,” Cor­den says. “We could prob­a­bly do it ev­ery week, with the amount of peo­ple that call in and say that they’d love to do it. But we wanted to keep it spe­cial and keep it in that sort of rar­efied air that it’s oc­cu­pied.”

Non­mu­sic stars

Adding non­mu­sic stars felt like a way it could stand along­side — and apart — from the flag­ship seg­ment without di­lut­ing its charm, Win­ston says. “We felt that do­ing it with other peo­ple — sports stars, movie stars, politi­cians — could be re­ally in­ter­est­ing, be­cause, sure, it’s re­ally great see­ing peo­ple sing their hits, but what’s great about the set­ting is the in­ti­macy you get from hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in a car with no crew around you. And we felt open­ing that up to more peo­ple would be fun.”

In ex­plor­ing it as a stand­alone series, Cor­den knew he couldn’t host the show — given his latenight du­ties and mount­ing list of projects, in­clud­ing “Drop the Mic,” an­other “Late Late Show” spin-off for TBS. It’s an ab­sence hard to over­look con­sid­er­ing he is syn­ony­mous with the brand and has per­fected the art of get­ting celebs to let down their guard. Cor­den thought a dif­fer­ent host ev­ery week would keep view­ers in­ter­ested.

“I wasn’t sure about the idea, be­cause we were talk­ing to dif­fer­ent broad­cast­ers and ca­ble net­works, and I think their feel­ing was ‘Who are we hang­ing this series around?’ ” Win­ston says. “But then as we started re­al­iz­ing that Apple would be a part­ner for us, it be­came a lot more in­ter­est­ing be­cause of see­ing who we could [pair], and it started tak­ing a life of its own.”

While Cor­den is still in the prover­bial driver’s seat — mak­ing the oc­ca­sional ap­pear­ance and serv­ing as host in the pre­miere and fi­nale — the show’s celebrity mashups take cen­ter stage. There will be 20 episodes, with pair­ings such as Ali­cia Keys and John Le­gend, Joe Jonas and Camila Ca­bello, Ari­ana Grande and Seth MacFar­lane, Billy Eich­ner and Me­tal­lica, Shakira and Trevor Noah — yes, even other late-night talk show hosts are ea­ger to belt it out.

Cor­den and Win­ston en­listed Eric Pankowski, who had been work­ing in the devel­op­ment de­part­ment at CBS, as showrun­ner for the series. And from the first episode, Pankowski wanted to es­tab­lish how the series would stand apart from its fore­bear.

“We wanted to say from the be­gin­ning, ‘This is not the Carpool Karaoke that you see on “The Late Late Show.” ’ This series goes to a dif­fer­ent place,” he says.

Some­times they ar­rive to that dif­fer­ent place by he­li­copter — as seen in the pre­miere with Will Smith. Some­times the dif­fer­ent place comes courtesy of hav­ing Me­tal­lica sing Ri­hanna’s “Di­a­monds.” Some­times the dif­fer­ent place is lit­eral — like tak­ing the show to the streets of Barcelona for the Shakira-Noah episode.

“Film­ing was a lot of fun,” Jonas says by email of his episode, which in­cludes a trip to the den­tist. “You for­get it’s filmed since it’s karaoke… [and] pre­tend­ing to be a den­tist isn’t some­thing I do reg­u­larly!”

If there’s one com­mon thread Cor­den hopes comes across loud and clear, it’s joy.

“There’s some­thing so ridicu­lously sim­ple about watch­ing celebri­ties sing their fa­vorite songs in the very same sce­nario we all sing them on our way to work,” he says. “Look, I’m con­stantly shocked by the suc­cess of it. Like, right now as we talk, the video we put out last night with Usher is the most watched video in the world on the big­gest video web­site, and it went out on a reg­u­lar Tues­day.”

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

BEN WIN­STON, left, and James Cor­den have upped game with “Carpool Karaoke: The Series.”

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