Glee: Fox's Hot New Comedy Hit?

Kevin Reilly is one of the happiest guys in the TV world these days. Two years after leaving NBC (GE), where he headed network programming, Reilly is the guy charged with finding hot new shows for Fox (NWS)—and it appears likely he has struck gold with a new show called Glee. "The response has been everything we had hoped for," Reilly said last week during lunch in the near-empty commissary at Fox's Los Angeles studio.

He's talking about what could be the rarest of all events on TV these days—a hit comedy. The one-hour show is about a group of misfit high school students in Ohio who find themselves by singing in the school glee club. One of Glee's stars, Cory Monteith, recently described the show as if "someone punched High School Musical in the stomach and took away its lunch money." With Glee, Fox appears set to tap the popularity of the music genre by having fresh-faced kids sing and dance, but it has also loaded the show with the likes of a remake of the 1981 Journey song Don't Stop Believing to lure older fans as well. (Don't Stop Believing became a top-selling iTunes song after the pilot aired.)

Critics have generally liked Glee and its off-beat characters—one is in a wheelchair, another a nerdy soprano with a flair for the melodramatic—and its quirky take on high school life, including an ultra-aggressive cheerleading adviser who compares a tough workout to "being waterboarded."

Prominent Pilot Just as amazing as critics liking a new show these days is the first-of-a-kind marketing campaign that Fox has launched—and invested heavily in—for Glee's Sept. 9 premiere. It took the unconventional approach of showing its pilot four months before it aired—and did it right after American Idol's big face-off show, giving it a chance at capturing some of the nearly 25 million folks who watched Adam Lambert battle Kris Allen in the finals. "It was like a small Super Bowl," says Joe Earley, a Fox executive vice-president.

A show like Glee, with its young, pretty stars and music soundtrack, is being counted on to lure the kind of younger viewers that networks need to build ratings down the road. (A hit among younger adult viewers tends eventually to bring in older viewers, creating larger hits.) And the coattails of a monster hit like Idol can offer a new program some early buzz, given that new shows on network TV tend to crumple faster than an off-key Idol contestant before Simon Cowell.

While networks generally spend around $10 million to launch a new TV show, you have to figure Fox exceeded that budget. It has screened the same pilot at 30 summer camps nationwide, screened the second episode in shopping malls or theaters in seven of the 10 markets at which it sent its stars to tour, and has given away tons of Glee T-shirts and other swag—all this even before it starts erecting the billboards, putting signs on city buses, and blitzing the airwaves with TV spots.

The result is that the show has a 30% awareness factor among TV viewers, I am told, the level that network executives think can translate into the kind of sampling that will lead a show—or should I say a good show—to become a hit. "We're incredibly happy, pleased, and relieved" is all Earley will say on that topic.

Snappy Lead-In Still, Fox is taking no chances. The network is scheduling the show at 9 p.m., right behind its other big hit, So You Think You Can Dance, which the network is moving from its usual summer slot to September to give it some ratings lift before American Idol resumes in January, when it has traditionally juiced the network's ratings. Fox needs the boost in the fall because, even though Idol helped propel the network to its seventh straight No. 1 finish among the highly prized 18-to-34-year-old demographic group, American Idol's overall numbers have started to show a little age, and Fox has never done particularly well in the fall.

So does any of this guarantee Glee becomes a hit? Nope. I saw it, and I enjoyed it. But I'm hardly in the demo target group. Moreover, the show retained only about half its lead-in audience from Idol back in May. Still, that represents more than 10 million viewers, enough to create some buzz that Fox no doubt will do its darnedest to maintain as Sept. 9 approaches, by putting Glee's stars on MySpace and having them Twitter. We know Fox can market with the best of them. And maybe, just maybe, it has also made Glee into a respectably sized hit in these days of fracturing network TV audiences.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.