In late night, digital success has become almost as important as linear ratings, and by that measure, The Late Late Show with James Corden is the daypart's new king. On Feb. 9, less than four weeks after its debut, the CBS host's Carpool Karaoke video with Adele has become the most-watched late-night YouTube video of all time, with 68.1 million views and counting, vaulting Corden ahead of the two prior digital masters of their late-night domains: Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.
In just 10 months, Carpool Karaoke, in which Corden drives around with some of music's biggest names as they sing along to their most iconic tunes, has become a viral sensation, racking up staggering numbers for videos with Justin Bieber (59.6 million), One Direction (41 million) and Iggy Azalea (24.8 million).
Building a healthy digital presence was a big part of the Late Late Show's plan from the beginning, given that few U.S. viewers knew the British host prior to his debut last March. "We wanted to make good content for television, but the thing we have least control over is ratings. The thing we have slightly more control over is relevance. The digital world is where you can make your relevance felt," said executive producer Rob Crabbe. "If you're making good content for 12:37 a.m., it should be good content at 12:37 p.m. when you're eating lunch at your desk. The goal is to make stuff that people want to watch at any time."
While producers hired a digital team to make sure the show was well-positioned in that space, "you can't go into television saying, we want to make a viral hit. That's a terrible way of making TV. You've got to make it the best that you can, and the best stuff rises to the top. And that happens online," said executive producer Ben Winston.
The segment was inspired by a 2011 Comic Relief sketch in which Corden sang Wham! tunes in a car with George Michael, and a 2014 documentary where he went on a musical road trip with British singer Gary Barlow. The show tried it on a whim during Corden's first week when Mariah Carey agreed to be a guest but was unable to appear in-person. It has since solidified Corden's considerable digital footprint. The Late Late Show's YouTube channel has 3.1 million subscribers and more than 631 million views, nearly half of which are for Carpool Karaoke videos. (61 percent of those Carpool Karaoke views are on mobile devices.)
So far, the massive digital numbers haven't made much of an impact in the Nielsens where The Late Late Show remains a distant second to NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers. But the musicians are cashing in—Adele's "All I Ask" jumped from 93 to 3 on iTunes following her video—and CBS is also eager to capitalize on the segment's massive success. "We are talking to a lot of different advertisers about how we can monetize this beyond the show," said Jo Ann Ross, CBS president of network sales. "It's a work in progress."
The show is ready and willing to partner with a brand. "It's a very sponsorable bit, in that we have to take exteriors of the car in order to edit the piece," said Crabbe, while Winston notes that several viral Late Late Show segments, including "Role Call," where Corden and actors like Matt Damon and Tom Hanks reenact dozens of their famous parts, would be ideal for brand partnerships.
Buyers agree that Corden's viral segments could be a great spotlight for their clients. "If you buy a spot in the show, you don't know if you're going to be associated with it or not. Here you have a chance to be part of something that is growing in pop culture. It allows you a bit more flexibility because it's going to live longer, not just going to be a one-off on a particular night," said Steve Kalb, svp, director of video investments at Mediahub.
Despite the increased interest in Carpool Karaoke, the executive producers aren't worried about the segment overshadowing the rest of Corden's show. "We've been on 10 months, and we've only actually done 12," said Winston, noting that 66 Late Late Show videos have more than 1 million views. (The next Carpool Karaoke video, with Sia, is set for the Feb. 16 episode.) After all, Carpool Karaoke's success drives viewer interest in all of the show's content. "It's a gateway drug," said Crabbe. "It gets people to our site, and then they get to see the other fun stuff we've been doing."
This story first appeared in the Feb. 15 issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.