Showrunners Tune Up To Reach Young Viewers

Peppering soundtracks with licensed songs and contemporary artists is no longer the province of auteur TV showrunners—it is an increasingly vital part of producing any successful show. That’s true not only because of the present glut of original programming, but also because music technology keeps dramatically evolving. Facebook and Apple, for example, are preparing to enter the song-recognition arena dominated by apps from Shazam and SoundHound, with all players basing their strategies on the value of TV in the overall mix.

Even the unlikeliest series—say, a plotheavy early-American spy drama with a sincere attachment to historical accuracy— make determined efforts to incorporate the downloadable ear candy that draws young viewers, fosters audience involvement and cements brand identity.

“Every cable show, every network show, wants to have a young audience,” says Barry Josephson, producer of AMC’s Revolutionary War drama Turn. “So for us, to use artists who [young] people know, potentially they’ll be interested in our show from that angle.”

The lengths to which Josephson and his creative team go to satisfy both marketing demands and the series’ sense of historical integrity suggest the importance today’s TV producers place on conveniently downloadable tunes.

The process begins with music supervisor Thomas Golubic, who compiles lists of actual period songs. The production team, including Josephson and showrunner Craig Silverstein, then brainstorms about possible contemporary musicians who could re-interpret the old tunes with a modern edge.

With music producer Tony Berg, the team stocks each Turn episode with polished, Americana-tinged traditional tunes like “Turpin Hero,” “Spanish Ladies” and “Bonny Portmore,” as interpreted by such indie artists as, respectively, Jake Bugg, Sarah Blasko and Laura Marling & Jonathan Wilson. (During the debut season, the show’s sole original song was its theme, “Hush,” by The Civil Wars’ Joy Williams and The National’s Matt Berninger.)

Measure for Measure

Both Josephson and Silverstein insist that marketing and promotional considerations are of secondary importance to the artistic merits of the songs and the dramatic ambience they create, and for good reason. While the music/ TV cross-pollinations have clear benefits to the music side of the equation (increased artist visibility and download purchases, for starters), the upside for the TV shows is harder to quantify.

At their best, song selections and theme music “galvanize” an audience,” says Russell Ziecker, executive VP for television music at Lionsgate Music and Publishing, who has supervised music for shows including Mad Men, Weeds, Boss and Nashville.

In the case of ABC’s Nashville, galvanize might be an understatement. The soapy drama, set in the country music capital and loaded with musical performances by cast members, has spawned a concert tour, four high-selling soundtrack CDs (more than 600,000 copies sold) and more than 3 million individual songs downloaded from iTunes, according to Lionsgate and ABC.

Nielsen ratings, however, sound a less resonant note. Nashville was on the verge of cancellation before getting a third-season pickup last month, thanks in part to a sweetened tax incentive package from the state of Tennessee. Turn, eyed as a potential successor to Breaking Bad and Mad Men, scored 2.1 million live-plus-same-day viewers in its premiere but has since declined to average between 1 and 1.4 million. AMC has not indicated its stance on bringing the show back.

Shows Thrive on Live

Shazam, the leading music recognition app with more than 420 million users in 200 countries, touts what company executives say is an increasingly significant contribution to both TV viewership and engagement. The tools come into play in particular with musicheavy programming like the Grammy and Country Music Awards broadcasts.

According to figures released by CEO Rich Riley, Shazam was used more than 54,000 times during January’s Grammy Awards, as TV viewers used the app to identify and download purchasable songs from iTunes and Amazon. Prior to the telecast, Shazam’s news feed reminded more than 10 million iOS and Android users to tune in.

With numbers like that, there’s little wonder that Facebook wants in on the action. Last month, the company announced plans for a new feature that allows iOS and Android users to identify snippets of TV and music recorded via smartphone microphones. The snippets are then matched to a Facebook database and identified; with the user’s permission, the song or show is then tagged on the user’s feed.

Apple, meanwhile, has confirmed that its iOS8, expected by September, will include hands-free, Siri-operated Shazam song recognition and iTunes purchase.

For musicians and their record labels, the visibility offered by TV shows, along with the possibility of a boost in digital downloads, can be irresistible, enough so even to sweeten their deals with TV producers and networks. Turn showrunner Silverstein says that Universal Music Group will release a soundtrack of all the series’ songs (a few are currently available as individual downloads on iTunes via AMC’s Turn website).

As part of the deal, Universal provided an undisclosed sum of money to offset the artist and production costs that the Turn production budget might not have otherwise allowed, Silverstein says.

Creating Sonic Signatures

Terence Winter, executive producer and writer of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (which won a 2012 Grammy Award for its first soundtrack CD), says music is a core element of the show. Pairing ’20s tunes with contemporary artists—Patti Smith, David Johansen and Elvis Costello, among many others— provides both publicity hooks and the chance to expose the artists’ fans to a littleknown era of American musical history.

Winter’s own history, as producer and writer of the music-heavy The Sopranos, prepared him well to orchestrate Boardwalk’s musical approach. He says Sopranos creator David Chase “always gave himself opportunities to use music,” often by making certain that, say, a radio or stereo was included in a setting so that a song could be added to a scene later, when inspiration struck. (Dean Martin’s Live at the Sands Hotel album, for example, was used to devastating comic effect at the end of “Whitecaps,” the fourth-season finale.)

Winter’s next project is an asyet- untitled HBO drama series created by Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. The series stars Boardwalk’s Bobby Cannavale as a New York City music executive in 1973, the dawn of punk, disco and hip-hop. Shooting on the pilot begins this month, and Winter says the soundtrack will include music written for the series as well as recognizable recordings from the era of Led Zeppelin and the New York Dolls.

Winter insists, though, that song choices for his series are made to enhance story, not for market demographics (a luxury, arguably, that pay- TV outlets such as HBO can afford).

Still, a well-chosen collection of licensed songs inevitably contributes to a show’s brand identification. Ann Kline, a music supervisor whose career stretches from NBC’s ER to Showtime’s Shameless, says the latter show’s use of brash American indie bands like Wild Yaks, Fidlar and The Moog captures the tone of the series. It also trumpets the show’s appeal to a youthful, engaged viewership.

“The bands’ fans and our fans create a community,” Kline says. “It feels like you’re part of something, together.”