Carpool Karaoke: The YouTube ‘gateway drug’ to the TV hard stuff

Why Sky got its hands on the viral-churning ‘Late Late Show’ (not that ‘Late Late Show’)

Adele’s Carpool Karaoke with James Corden has got more than 114 million YouTube views. Photograph: Craig Sugden/CBS via Getty Images

Carpool Karaoke is the frequently funny, insanely popular video item in which chat show host James Corden drives about Los Angeles belting out the hits of a famous singer – Mariah Carey, Stevie Wonder, Jenny "from the Block" Lopez – and they gamely join in from the passenger seat. It sounds harmless and anodyne, but for broadcasting executives its success is representative of something very serious indeed: an acceleration in online consumption.

The fear that the habits of younger audiences could knock the stuffing out of traditional television advertising revenues in years to come has forced TV bosses on to YouTube to find out what Corden's good-natured, hyperactive wailing-with-the-stars is all about.

What is the magic formula behind winning 110 million views for wittering on in an enclosed space with Adele? Wait, is that George Clooney piling into the back seat? Shouldn't we be at least trying to do something like this? Oh, we are.

Carpool Karaoke has become a phenomenon to cite on internal strategy documents – it is a case study for broadcasters to pore over as they try to figure out exactly where their linear television channels fit with a generation of viewers that can't remember life before the "Fang" companies (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google).


Now Sky has announced that Carpool Karaoke is coming to Sky 1, with a one-hour special scheduled for July 19th.

The US network television "parent" programme from which the segment hails, CBS's Late Late Show with James Corden, will then be made available on-demand on the Sky platform in UK and Ireland one day after its broadcast in the US. Interestingly, it will not air on Sky 1 or any of its linear channels.

It’s another nice transatlantic programming deal for the European satellite broadcaster, one that it will add to its marketing messages when it is trying to boost subscribers.

On Sky’s latest platform, Sky Q, the user interface privileges the on-demand experience over linear channels, giving the latter much less prominence than they had on older platforms. Now its content strategy is beginning to follow suit.

Where Corden's Late Late Show would end up on this side of the pond has been the subject of some industry speculation ever since the British actor and comedy writer made it in the US.

TV3's former content director Lynda McQuaid identified Corden's show last autumn as a "really, really perfect fit" and said she would "love to acquire it" for the channel. Then, in April, ex-RTÉ director-general Noel Curran referenced Carpool Karaoke's statistics as evidence of how loyalty to linear channels had waned, to the extent that it was "not even remotely the same" as it had been. But this didn't have to be "a negative conversation", he said. Corden's YouTube views had to be worth something, "and I hope they're paying him a shedload of money".

Here are some of those stats. The CBS Late Late Show's YouTube channel has 6.3 million subscribers and has racked up more than 1.4 billion views in total.

On network television, the show typically attracts an audience of about 1.3 million in its 12.37am slot (when the Americans say "late late", they mean "late late") four nights a week. This puts it second to its direct "linear" competitor, NBC's Late Night with Seth Meyers. For online popularity, however, Corden is up there challenging the longer-established Jimmy Fallon (11.3 million subscribers) and Jimmy Kimmel (eight million).

Topped by Adele's appearance, Carpool Karaoke is the single greatest digital hit for a late-night US chat show. CBS has now begun to commercialise it, taking pop star Selena Gomez to a drive-thru McDonald's on her trip.

The segment has proved that it is possible to be not just viral, but consistently viral, which might break the hearts of entertainment producers under pressure to constantly whip up click magnets.

It would be ridiculous for RTÉ's The Meaning of Life to be charged with replicating the six million-plus views it got for Stephen Fry's views on an "evil" god, though the makers of RTÉ2's Republic of Telly may well feel obliged to come up with more "You Know You're Irish When. . ." viral hits. They should quote Corden's executive producers Ben Winston and Rob Crabbe in their defence. "You can't go into television saying: 'We want to make a viral hit.' That's a terrible way of making TV," Winston told AdWeek, while Crabbe described its knack for virals as the "gateway drug" to the show proper.

YouTube triumphs are still regarded as promotion tools for the real revenue-raising business of television. But broadcasters have to prepare themselves for the moment when that relationship flips, and it is these things called television channels that serve as marketing for the digital meal ticket.

For Carpool Karaoke, meanwhile, the next passenger is Michelle Obama.