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TV is the new radio: 'Empire,' 'Vinyl' and late night talk shows provide wall-to-wall music

TV is the new radio: 'Empire,' 'Vinyl' and late night talk shows provide wall-to-wall music
Music TV (Justin Renteria / For The Times)

When "Empire" showrunner Ilene Chaiken was working with Quincy Jones in the 1990s, they developed a show about a girl band. "It would have been a smash hit," Chaiken says now. "But it didn't get on the air. For many years people have talked about doing shows about the music industry — but they got rejected. Then suddenly it clicks."

It sure has. TV is the new radio these days, covered in prime-time and late night, live and taped, comedy and drama — with music. Narrative shows such as Fox's "Empire," about a hip-hop mogul and his family; HBO's "Vinyl," set in the music industry of the 1970s; and FX's "Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll," about a washed-up rocker and his musical daughter; late night's "Late Late Show" (CBS) and "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon" (NBC); television movies like "Dolly Parton's Coat of Many Colors" (NBC) and live musicals like "The Wiz" (NBC) and "Grease" (Fox) all have TV executives singing very different tunes these days.

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"People are looking for a way to watch music played before them," says "Empire" director and executive producer Sanaa Hamri. "Music is a universal language that anyone on this planet can love — but ultimately it's a language that's important to us emotionally."

TV's obsession with music has been on the rise for a while, though. "Wiz" producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan have been creating a string of hit TV musicals as far back as 1993's "Gypsy" — but the modern era of TV musical love really kicked into high gear starting in 2009 when Ryan Murphy's "Glee" incorporated song and dance into numbers that were both staged and part of the narrative.

"We started on this quest to make the musical a popular form on film and in TV — it was a very undernourished and moribund genre,"  Meron says.

Bobby Cannavale stars in HBO's 'Vinyl.'
Bobby Cannavale stars in HBO's 'Vinyl.' (HBO)

Music gets to people in a way that dialogue doesn't. We were always looking for ways to use music in a dramatic context that's different.


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"Music gets to people in a way that dialogue doesn't," adds Zadan. "We were always looking for ways to use music in a dramatic context that's different."

But for every clever, not-ironic use of music on TV now, there were ambitious flops like 2007's "Viva Laughlin" and 1990's "Cop Rock" that threw the needle out of the groove.

"My hat's off to 'Cop Rock' for having the courage to do something like that," says Terence Winter, showrunner for "Vinyl's" first season who worked with executive producers Martin Scorsese and Mick Jagger. "It's one of those things that if it doesn't work, it doesn't work in a big way — but if you do pull it off on shows like 'Empire' or 'Nashville' or 'Glee,' it opens up a whole new world."

"I think there's a direct connection between karaoke and Rock Band and the idea that almost anybody can get up and sing," says "Sex&Drugs" star and executive producer Denis Leary. "Some of us think this is pretty easy, you get up and grab the microphone and start singing. But that's only the most surface elements of it."

Surface or not, Leary is correct when he adds that "people can't get enough of it." Something like "Coat of Many Colors" might have just been a standalone TV movie of the week/country singer biopic a few years ago, but now it's the planned opening sally in an ongoing series of event films.

"Bob Greenblatt knew what we wanted to do immediately," says "Coat" executive producer Sam Haskell of the NBC Entertainment chairman. "He said that it was about finding ways to do movies that surround [Dolly Parton's] stories that we can turn into events. There is a huge hunger for inspiration and faith and music, and her stories give something positive for people to hold on to."

Meanwhile, James Corden on "Late Late Show" and Fallon on "The Tonight Show" have built a cottage industry with their music-themed skits, videos of which often go viral and serve to promote the show after hours. (They've done so well that Fallon's "Lip Sync Battle" is a third season spinoff on Spike, while Corden's "Carpool Karaoke" is being shopped as a series.)

"We're not thinking about the audience watching late at night any more," says "Late Late" exec Ben Winston. "We think about people watching it the next day on their apps or iPhone. If we were just making a show for a slot where people were falling asleep, we might not do musical numbers."

"This is an audience that has grown up with 'American Idol,'" says Thomas Kail, director of Fox's live production of "Grease." "It's not just winking and nudging — music has found its way back into storytelling, and that allows a group of storytellers to be heard. 'Broadway' is no longer a bad word."

And neither is "musical." As Leary notes, "Sex&Drugs'" star Elizabeth Gillies appeared on Broadway as a teenager with Ariana Grande (in "13"), then both segued into the music-focused "Victorious" on Nickelodeon. That makes his TV show a natural next step.

"I think everyone should learn to dance and sing a little bit," he says. "This is a big train — it's not going to stop rolling."

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