How Spike’s Lip Sync Battle Became Such a Stunning Success

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John Krasinski on Lip Sync Battle. Photo: Maya Robinson and Photo by SpikeTV

Just two weeks in, the Spike TV series version of Jimmy Fallon’s Lip Sync Battle is looking like a legitimate hit, both on TV and online. The celebrity air-vocal showdown gave Spike its biggest Nielsen numbers ever for a series premiere, and since then, the total audience for the first episodes (counting DVR replays and multiple reruns) has soared past 15 million TV viewers. Even more stunning: Spike says that various LSB performance clips from the first three half-hour episodes have already generated nearly 100 million online streams. Not bad for a concept that began with executive producer (and The Office star) John Krasinski trying to think of a cool bit to do during a visit to Fallon’s Late Night a couple years ago.

The early success of the show isn’t altogether surprising, of course (except maybe to the NBC executives who made the head-scratching decision to pass on the show, despite Fallon’s attachment). The abbreviated version of LSB was an online hit during its Late Night days, and even more so when Fallon brought it to a larger platform on The Tonight Show. Lip-sync videos have also long been popular on YouTube, while air vocalizing as TV entertainment goes back to the 1980s. Still, it was hardly a guarantee that a weekly, half-hour version of LSB would manage to break out in such a big way, particularly on a midsize cable network such as Spike. So why are viewers down with LSB? After talking to executive producers Casey Patterson and Jay Peterson, along with Spike president Kevin Kay, Vulture settled on four key factors that may explain how Lip Sync Battle is hitting all the right (silent) notes. 

Everybody’s invited to the party.
Cable networks have historically found success by servicing specific audiences, slicing up corners of the Nielsen universe like the seven kingdoms. You won’t find reruns of Baby Boomer classic The Flintstones on the 20-something-focused Adult Swim, just as your grandma’s favorite network —  the Hallmark Channel — isn’t about to snap up the rerun rights to Pretty Little Liars. There’s nothing wrong with such brand specificity, but one of the main joys of LSB is that it doesn’t seem concerned about fitting into any specific demographic box. The same episode that featured Anne Hathaway nailing 21st-century anthem “Wrecking Ball” also included Emily Blunt fake-crooning hippie-era standard “Piece of My Heart.” Host LL Cool J represents Gen X; sidekick Chrissy Teigen was raised down in millennial land.

Patterson says this sort of niche-agnostic approach is by design. Rather than worrying whether young men between the ages of 12 and 24 will be turned off by a Janis Joplin song, Team LSB tries to focus on figuring out how to maximize the entertainment value of every segment. “We’re being true to the concept … to what [the show] should be, as opposed to any particular brand or demo,” she says. And it helps that the idea behind the show is itself a broad one. “Lip-syncing is for everyone,” Patterson says, pointing to the diversity of groups making civilian lip-sync videos and then posting them on the internet. “If you go online, it’s dads and daughters, it’s moms, it’s women at work, it’s ageless, it’s genderless. You don’t have to have the voice. You don’t have to learn to be a ballroom dancer. You just have to be really committed, and you have to love the music.”

This approach has already yielded ratings results for Spike. Among women under 50, LSB’s April 1 premiere was the network’s top-rated original program ever. And among all viewers, it was the biggest series premiere Spike has ever seen. This is particularly good news for Spike since the network is using the show to help it transition from a network that targeted mostly men under 35 to one looking for viewers of both genders, as well as those who are a bit older. “We’ve been wanting to balance the network’s audience, and this show has opened the door for that bigger, broader audience,” Kay told Vulture. He says that while many cable networks will still find success focusing on a narrow niche, it’s going to become harder to do that as viewing options continue to proliferate and as viewers have more and more nonlinear programming choices. “You can make a decision to be small … but for us, it became harder to sell that [to advertisers],” he said.

The celebrity contestants are actual celebrities, who actually look like they’re having fun.
Unlike Dancing With the Stars and most episodes of Hollywood Game Night, so far LSB has managed to book stars with some real cachet: Anna Kendrick, Justin Bieber, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, John Legend, Common, Emily Blunt, Anne Hathaway, Taraji P. Henson, and others. Sure, it can be fun to watch a 1990s sitcom star struggle with the tango and the waltz as he or she tries to stay relevant. But it’s an event to see someone starring in TV’s hottest show or a recent Grammy winner losing herself in an air-vocal performance. Plus, many of the stars have played against their public perception: Tough guy Johnson did Taylor Swift, while Hathaway literally went balls-to-the-wall with her Miley performance.

Despite the Fallon and Krasinski connections, getting big names to say yes to the show wasn’t easy — particularly before celebs knew how the half-hour format would work. “This is the hardest talent-ask in town,” Patterson says. “This is [the celebrity] alone on a stage. It’s a mini version of the adrenaline they get from hosting Saturday Night Live.” The producers have been able to line up an all-star roster in part by making the show as talent-friendly as possible. Their biggest rule: As long as the rights can be cleared, guests get to choose which songs they want to perform — no matter how odd their selections might seem to the producers. “Sometimes you think, Oh, it’s not going be the best song … or, Really? I don’t get it,” Peterson says. “But then you see the celebrity perform it, and you realize, Oh, they had a vision for this, and it’s awesome.”

Almost all of the bookings are also done in tandem, so the two celebs battling already know each other — and can use that preexisting relationship to fuel their performances. “They know exactly what buttons to press” to get a reaction out of their rivals, Patterson says. “The show is at [its] best when there’s already an organic relationship and chemistry there.” Having celebs compete against people they also know helps ease the anxiety associated with the performance. “They can go for it up there together,” Peterson says. And if all else fails, producers have one more weapon in their arsenal: They make sure some liquid courage is on set. “Booze is the other star of Lip Sync Battle,” Patterson says. 

It’s not overproduced.
Unscripted shows on broadcast networks are often loaded up with stunts and gimmicks designed to maximize their Nielsen potential, with execs convinced the more bells and whistles they add, the bigger the ratings. But just as the LSB producers opted not to impose artificial demographic targets, they also went out of their way not to futz up the very simple premise that worked so well on Fallon’s late-night shows. There’s no celebrity judging panel tacked on to add “stakes” to the show, or screaming graphics that try to turn the show into a UFC championship. “Jay and I would sit around and go, ‘We need to do more — we’re producers! We need to make this complicated,'” Patterson laughs. “But in the end, everyone realized the show is the performances. It was a scary thing to do, but we just had faith in the concept. You don’t have to suffer through other elements to get to the good stuff on this show.” Peterson, meanwhile, says he “cannot stress enough” how “very rare” such an approach is in television, since networks and producers so often try to prove their value by noting a concept to death: “Getting out of the way was one of the biggest secrets to the show’s success.”

While LSB isn’t burned with a bunch of unnecessary elements, it also doesn’t look like a cheap cable production. Veteran Saturday Night Live director Beth McCarthy-Miller was brought in to helm the show’s first 18-episode season, and her touch is visible everywhere, from the complex camera angles used to capture the breadth of the performances to the snazzy black-and-white opening titles customized for each week’s contestants. “Beth was the first name out of my mouth when we started talking about doing this show,” Patterson says. In addition to her production skills, she says, McCarthy-Miller “has that very specific hyperninja skill of being able to make celebrities completely comfortable doing something totally out of their comfort zone in no time at all.” 

It’s built for the digital era of television.
One reason Fallon’s Tonight Show has been such a success is that he, like Jimmy Kimmel before him, understands many of his potential viewers either don’t have the time for — or aren’t interested in — watching an hour-long comedy/variety show five nights per week. He serves those viewers by creating tons of content that’s easily consumed and shared online; if some of them then travel back to the linear broadcast at 11:35 p.m., all the better. Lip Sync Battle, of course, was one of the best examples of this when it was only a segment on Fallon. And rather than change that dynamic with the half-hour version — by introducing a complicated voting mechanism, or only offering selected clips online — the LSB show producers have embraced the concept’s viral DNA. “Our goal was to get the ratings you get with a network TV show, but not fight the idea that it will live everywhere,” Patterson says.

As mentioned before, Spike says that various LSB clips and related content have already generated nearly 100 million streams, just two weeks after the show launched. A single preview clip of this week’s John Krasinski vs. Anna Kendrick battle has already been seen over 4.5 million times; the full clip of Hathaway doing “Wrecking Ball” is now up to 11 million streams. “We’ve never seen numbers like this,” Spike’s Kay says. “It’s extraordinary.” What’s more, Kay notes that the show’s success online hasn't hurt ratings for TV encores of the show. Spike has been repeating episodes heavily on TV, adding millions more viewers to the show’s cumulative audience. “We’re hoping more and more people will find it,” Kay says.