Glee’s 100th Episode Retrospective: How One Show Took Over iTunes

Love it or hate it, you have to admit Fox's (NASDAQ: FOXA  )  Glee has cemented its place in pop culture as a smash hit. While the show may not be the same bright star it was years ago when it debuted, it has remained a force across the pop culture landscape. As it turns 100 episodes old tonight, that fact has never been clearer.

(Credit: Fox)

Unique concept

Glee premiered in May 2009 following the first part of that year's American Idol season finale. Audiences took to it and its unique approach to storytelling, which led to strong numbers when the show officially launched that fall.

The concept was different than anything that had been seen under the weekly episodic model. It was a dramedy set in a high school and focused on its glee club ... and the cast often spontaneously burst into song. What helped sell the show was the characters' diversity, in terms of nationalities, genders, and sexual orientations. The challenges that each of the characters faced were (usually) realistic and audiences of all kinds related to the storylines.

Of course there was also the music.

Music industry madness

No pop culture event since High School Musical had as much of an impact on Apple's (NASDAQ: AAPL  ) iTunes as Glee. The show's covers of popular songs dominated the charts and Fox had itself a new cash cow. Each week it was common to see two or three of the new covers somewhere on the Top 10 singles chart. Producers even started introducing original tracks in the mix as well, which of course led to higher sales. Glee was proving to be very good for business.

Overall Glee's musical megasuccess has led to platinum and gold albums comprised of just the show's numerous covers. It also helps that every song featured on the series is made available for download immediately following the episode airing to help spike downloads.

In total over 200 of those singles have appeared on Billboard's Top 100, a record for any single act. One of the most successful to date is the cover of Journey's Don't Stop Believing, with mash-ups of songs like Halo/Walking on Sunshine making a nice dent as well.

Another trend was themed episodes featuring the music of artists like Madonna and Britney Spears, plus cult favorite The Rocky Horror Picture Show. With each tribute came a separate album and with each album came more revenue.

In many cases musicians were very willing to have their music featured as often the original tracks received a sizable boost in sales after being included on the show, a trend that continues to this day (though arguably to a lesser extent).

A few years after Glee's success NBC (a subsidiary of Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA  ) ) tried to get into the mix with the network's Smash. The drama was seen as a more adult Glee and focused on the launch of a fictional Broadway musical. Despite the pedigree of the cast --which included Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston, and American Idol alum Katherine McPhee, and the crew, which included executive producer Steven Spielberg -- the show never found its legs on air. As a result, it was harder for the series to see the same type of iTunes success. Smash still sold, but nowhere near the level of Glee. In fact, few if any have had that type of luck.

Solo spin-offs

As much as audiences loved the ensemble as a collective, they didn't respond to the cast's individual musical projects. Matthew Morrison, Naya Rivera, and Mark Salling are among the performers who have since all released their own music but failed to see the same type of runaway success.

Perhaps that's part of the reason why other stars have shied away and why it took Lea Michele so long to launch her first solo album, which just streeted this month. So far, she's bucking the trend and debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard charts selling 60,000 units.

Yet outside of music, the success has been there -- Jane Lynch is in the middle of a successful run as the host of NBC's Hollywood Game Night, Chris Colfer has launched a line of best-selling children's books, Darren Criss has headlined on Broadway, and Jayma Mays has segued over to a series regular role on CBS' just renewed comedy The Millers.

Those are just a handful of examples, not to mention creator Ryan Murphy, who was able to turn his increased popularity into a deal with FX to create the ultra-successful American Horror Story series and The New Normal, a ground-breaking (but short-lived) comedy on NBC.

The future

To be honest Glee is not as good as it used to be. It could be a case of over-exposure or just its core audience outgrowing it, but it is no longer the industry's shiny new toy. In fact, next year the show will end its run following the conclusion of its sixth season.

Yet tonight is a celebration for a program that many thought had no chance of ever succeeding. Instead of flopping, it thrived and Glee's impact can be felt all across the TV, music, publishing, and Broadway realms. This was a show that literally was an industry game changer and that's something that should be remembered as it celebrates a milestone.

The show didn't just feature a group called "New Directions," it went in a brand new direction and that will be its legacy.

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