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Performing with Glee

Alex Leavitt
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Some producers developing cross-platform media franchises are experimenting with distribution models that engage consumers on a quotidian level, capitalizing on personal audience networks and not-quite-official distribution routes to help content spread. For FOX’s television franchise Glee, the network integrates traditional, legal distribution practices with experimental tactics that engage loyal fans, in addition to harnessing unofficial distribution channels that fall into legal gray areas.

The production team has embraced the show’s fans—known as gleeks, a fusion of “Glee” and “geek”—fashioning a popular (brand) identity and catering specifically to them. In addition to conventional broadcast, Hulu and FOX.com allow viewers to catch previous episodes, and FOX offers additional content such as cast interviews and behind-the-scenes clips. Glee’s thematic fusion of high school comedy and Broadway musical provide opportunities for musical guests from both Broadway (such as Kristin Chenoweth) and the popular music circuit (such as Britney Spears and Josh Grobin), bringing new viewers into the Glee fan club while keeping current fans engaged.

To retain fan interest after season one ended, FOX partnered with CoincidentTV to create the “Glee Superfan Player.” The online platform integrates social network sites such as Facebook and Twitter with other fan-enticing elements—such as links to buy music on iTunes and to create “photobooth” pictures with the cast—in a unified space that plays episodes while viewers multitask. While the player only provides access to material on Hulu and FOX.com, rendering the experimental platform useless once episodes eventually expire, it at least represents an attempt to create a consolidated cross-platform fan experience. Other recent experiments include a MySpace karaoke contest, in which fans record themselves singing hits from Glee, and live concert tours that sold out in four American cities—so successful that the cast plans to tour the UK in mid-2011.

The intersection of music distribution and user-generated content epitomizes the most interesting, and engaging, cross-platform strategy around Glee. The songs performed on Glee are covers of recent music and popular older tunes, or remixes of both. For older audiences, these songs resonate from nostalgia, while the half-live-half-lip-synced, music-video-styled performances entice younger viewers to listen to and share the music. The opportunity to purchase these covers offers participation beyond Glee’s televisual form, extending the primary setting of Glee onto iPods and into living rooms. Music from the series has been available through iTunes since a few weeks after the premiere episode, and individual songs are released in waves, ultimately leading up to album releases. Both these formats have proven successful. For instance, the cast cover of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” reached number one on the iTunes top-selling songs chart in July 2009 (Wieselman 2009), selling more than 350,000 copies overnight (Burlingame 2009).

Using music as a primary transmedia medium remains an original alternative. The producers’ espousal of unusual platforms and consumer behaviors helps Glee as franchise-cum-music move across technical boundaries into social practices. Illegal torrents and streaming copies of episodes are available, but YouTube has become the prime platform for audience participation. Before some songs and clips are available for purchase, users upload audio and video captures, ripped from their computers or recorded directly from their television via camcorders. For example, on 19 May 2009, user LeelooDoyle uploaded a high-quality version of “Don’t Stop Believin’” with only a static promotional image. By 10 December 2009, the song had reached over 4 million views. While it is impossible to denote causation or correlation between the popularity of songs illegally uploaded to YouTube and their success in the iTunes music store, it is likely that fans replay their favorite songs on YouTube until they can legally purchase them.

Most of Glee’s repertoire is available on YouTube: many videos comprise high-quality audio accompanied by a static image or collection of cast photographs. Occasionally, users add dynamic karaoke lyrics so viewers can sing along. All of these illegal uploads are valuable in the eyes of YouTube’s community. As Jean Burgess and Joshua Green (2009) argue, these videos serve celebratory and practical purposes: fans want to view and share their favorite clips, and the easiest and fastest way to do that is to rip video from the broadcast and upload it to popular sites such as YouTube.

Passionate gleeks celebrate Glee by consuming media, but more so by creating it. Hundreds of YouTube videos feature individuals or groups dancing and lip-syncing to cast recordings or reenacting scenes, subjectively and uniquely interpreting the show. This isn’t fan fiction, in which fans put new spins on preestablished narratives; instead, these videos illustrate a type of “redoing,” participatory but respectful of the original creation.

While YouTube’s panoptic Content ID system constantly searches for videos appropriating copyrighted content without permission, many of these reverential fan videos remain. These user uploads help maintain Glee’s social, and hence financial, ecosystem. For example, by design, YouTube frequently appends a “Buy this song on iTunes” invitation below each fan-produced video. While some content directly ripped from broadcast has been removed for copyright infringement, the celebratory videos by fans remain as a testament to their enthusiasm for Glee and the value of audiences not necessarily accounted for by television ratings. FOX and the Glee producers see value in these grassroots practices, and Glee’s executive producer, Dante Di Loreto, embraces these productions as evidence of the value created by loyal viewers: “Right after we aired the pilot in May, people started posting their own versions of our songs online. [. . .] It was so exciting to see because we knew then that we had touched a chord. Believe me, I’ve seen a lot of different versions of our songs. [. . .] No matter how crazy they get, it’s still flattering” (quoted in Hiltbrand 2009). YouTube is multipurpose by nature. A December 2010 query for “glee don’t stop believing” returns 5,390 hits, including other uploads of the song—such as one by user bigwhyte57, boasting over 7,600,000 additional views to LeeLooDoyle’s version—as well as fan performances, live renditions sung by the actual cast members, mash-ups created by amateur and professional DJs, all mixed in with official content from FOX. The politics of how to use the platform (Gillespie 2010) fluctuate constantly, and YouTube’s functions are redefined by the interests of multiple users and stakeholders. Yet, as Glee shows, a positivist approach to regulating media content produces favorable results for both content producers and audiences.


Burgess, Jean, and Joshua Green. 2009. YouTube: Online Video and Participatory Culture. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Burlingame, Jon. 2009. “‘Glee’ Eyes Ratings, Chart Success.” Variety, Aug. 24. http://www.variety.com/article/VR1118007657.

Gillespie, Tarleton. 2010. “The Politics of ‘Platforms.’” New Media & Society 12 (3): 347–364.

Hiltbrand, David. 2009. “Gaga for Glee: Gleeks Delight in Online Mimicry of TV Show’s Musical Numbers.” Vancouver Sun, Nov. 18. http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/entertainment/2238648/story.html.

Wieselman, Larett. 2009. “‘Glee’ Is #1 in America’s Ears, iPods.” New York Post, July 13. http://www.nypost.com/p/blogs/popwrap/item_uqNodyvI417Y3WuyZnqfxJ.

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