Music On TV: What Works Now

Late Night And Morning Show Music Bookers Share New Strategies For Finding Talent And Making Performances Pop

Megan Thee Stallion
Megan Thee Stallion performs on 'Saturday Night Live' on Oct. 3, 2020. Will Heath/NBC

Here’s how today’s most powerful bookers are scouting talent, guiding creative and making virtual performances pop in a world without in-person live music — and the ways in which they think the pandemic might change their process for good.

The music bookers for America’s top morning and late-night TV shows are comfortable with chaos — working hours that can start well before sunrise, breaking news that can mean cancelling performances and handling the usual last-minute scheduling changes. But they’ve never had to confront a pandemic. Here’s how today’s most powerful bookers are scouting talent, guiding creative and making virtual performances pop in a world without in-person live music — and the ways in which they think the pandemic might change their process for good.

Mega TV
Vladimir Gomez
Vp corporate communications and talent relations, Spanish Broadcasting System
In July, former CNN en Español anchor Ismael Cala debuted his new, prime-time weekday variety show, CALA, on Mega TV, the channel owned by Spanish Broadcasting System. The program has yet to book musical performances, although Gomez — who oversees all talent bookings on SBS’ 17 owned and operated stations and 250-plus affiliates — plans to get started as soon as the company’s Miami studio reopens for guests. In the meantime, he has been busy booking exclusive interviews with icons like Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who serve as CALA’s “official godparents” and appeared on the inaugural episode, and reggaetón pioneer Ivy Queen, who came by to discuss her new single, “Next,” and how she reconciled a recent feud with Karol G. Gomez also brought to life the Friday-night music series Mi Casa, Es Tu Casa in April, which features pretaped audio performances from Pitbull, Maluma, Natti Natasha and more on SBS’ leading terrestrial stations and the LaMusica app.
How has the pandemic changed your booking philosophy?
“Before, I would never, ever accept an artist [guest] via Skype, because for me, it was an insult. Viewers and listeners would see that as, ‘Why is the person not in the studio?’ But the pandemic changed everything and made Zoom and Skype more relevant for us to use and more powerful than ever. If not, I wouldn’t have an interview with anyone.”

CBS
Brian Applegate
Executive producer (CBS This Morning: Saturday)
Lauren Hoenemeyer
Coordinating producer
The CBS This Morning “Saturday Sessions” series is a prized booking for publicists and managers — since 2014, it has been a performance and interview spotlight for artists, many of them outside the mainstream. “I didn’t want the streak to end,” says Applegate. So when the pandemic forced the CBS Broadcast Center in Manhattan to shut down in mid-March, he booked Bridge Studio in Brooklyn and stockpiled performances from Craig Finn, Chris Thile and others. When those ran out in mid-April, Applegate made it his mission to ensure that remote sets from artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Bright Eyes and The Killers felt like “true live performances, as pure as we can get them.” Rather than using tape provided by the artists themselves, he asks for raw footage and has his team edit it, sometimes even directing live via Zoom — a strategy first employed for Aloe Blacc’s poignant Fourth of July set, which wove in a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” and aired amid protests over police brutality. Meanwhile, on the weekday morning show, Hoenemeyer makes sure that even if they’re not face-to-face, remote artist interviews replicate the in-person intimacy for which co-host Gayle King is known. In an August broadcast, King and Katy Perry discussed the singer’s pregnancy and album Smile over FaceTime from floats in their respective pools, “so it felt like they were together,” says Hoenemeyer. “We’ve done so many Zoom interviews that at this point, we’re looking for every creative way to bring pieces to life.”
Why is it important that “Saturday Sessions” sets don’t look like music videos?
Applegate “I’ve gotten credit over the years [from viewers] on social media like, ‘You guys let the shots linger — you’re not just swinging cameras.’ It’s really about seeing the musicianship. For our show, we put it out there bare.”

Univision
Luz Maria Doria
Vp/executive producer, Univision Communications
In July, all 50 members of Despierta América’s Miami-based crew went into self-quarantine after nine staffers tested positive for the coronavirus, including co-hosts Karla Martínez and Alan Tacher. “We really had a crisis,” says Maria Doria. But Despierta América — the top morning show on Spanish-language TV in the United States, averaging 505,000 total viewers per episode, according to Nielsen, and outperforming Telemundo’s Un Nuevo Día by double- to triple-digit margins in key demographics — continued on its usual weekday schedule, including remote, prerecorded performances sent in by artists. Among the top-rated sets aired during the pandemic, Leonel García covered Luis Miguel’s tear-jerker “La Media Vuelta,” Gloria Estefan performed the single “Un Nuevo Mundo” from new album BRAZIL305, and Pedro Capó sang new track “La Sábana y los Pies,” a timely tune about being separated from a loved one. Martínez and Tacher returned to the studio in August after recovering from the coronavirus, and Maria Doria promises more top-tier talent to come: “We are giving 300% to make it happen,” she says. “We have been doing that for 23 years, and now is the time in history when [viewers] need us.”
You say the show’s ratings spiked in September. What’s driving that growth?
“We’re all very scared. There is a lot of uncertainty. But Despierta América is like the house of five good friends who open their doors every morning and give you exactly what you need to feel better. We are very similar to our audience — we are immigrants; we are dreamers — so we know what people need.”

TBS
Kim Burdges
Producer
Prior to the pandemic, the weekly late-night show featured a musical guest about once every three months. Since Bee began filming the program from her backyard in March, that frequency is up to every other week, as part of a “Sam’s Shed” bit where Jewel, MisterWives, Mt. Joy and others have performed virtually inside a shed in back of Bee’s house in upstate New York. “She thought that doing these remote shows was a good excuse to have more music,” says Burdges. “We were thinking of ways to frame it differently, and she said it would be cool if we could use this shed as a magical portal.” The shed was destroyed when Hurricane Isaias ripped through the East Coast in late July, but the performances have continued, with Sylvan Esso filming a rendition of “Ferris Wheel,” the lead single off the pop duo’s new album, Free Love, from the back of a moving pickup truck in September. Says Burdges: “The more fun and wacky, the better.”
What’s the last problem you had to solve with a performance, and how did you do it?
“Vanessa Carlton shot herself in her home. The lighting was a little bit low quality — there was some flickering. I put out the idea of, ‘What if this was playing on a projector with a kaleidoscope effect?’ We positioned it that way. It’s such a beautiful love song, and it ended up being a beautiful performance.”

ABC
Monica Escobedo
Coordinating entertainment producer
When the pandemic first hit, Escobedo asked herself a question: “What are the rules?” And then, she says, she had a revelation: “Maybe there are none.” That approach has resulted in a range of unconventional remote performances sent in by artists for Good Morning America’s now-virtual weekly summer concert series. The Black Eyed Peas employed computer-generated imaging for their futuristic rendition of “RITMO,” Old Dominion used a drone to film a set on a Nashville hotel rooftop, and when the show hosted a wedding between two first responders in the middle of an empty Times Square, Andy Grammer serenaded the couple via a digital billboard as they shared their first dance. But Escobedo’s proudest moment came with a return to tradition when, on Sept. 17, she spearheaded the show’s first live, in-person performance since the pandemic began: a surprise drive-in Alicia Keys concert in Brooklyn where the New York native — performing on a stage with a view of the Empire State Building behind her — sang a medley of hits for a socially-distanced crowd of essential workers, ahead of releasing her album ALICIA the following day. “Daily on GMA we’re covering stories about essential workers, and we wanted to give back,” says Escobedo, who hopes to have more in-person shows soon.
What’s one way the pandemic changed your job for the better?
“I’m not always up at 4 in the morning, so I can be creative. Usually, when I’m in the studio, I'm getting up at 3:45 or 4 in the morning. Now, I can sleep until 6:30 or 7.”

ABC
Jim Pitt
Music producer
Back in March, Kimmel met the pandemic with a tongue-in-cheek “Live From the Lavatory” series where artists like Phoebe Bridgers and Dave Matthews sang from their bathrooms. “We knew it couldn’t last forever,” says Pitt with a laugh, and the show’s remote sets have since evolved to full-scale productions, like John Legend’s sunset-backed performance of “Wild” and Snoh Aalegra’s rendition of “Whoa” from a fog-filled makeshift stage, as well as new series like Healthcare Heroes, where Burna Boy, Smokey Robinson and more have surprised medical workers with video messages and gifts. Kimmel returned to the studio on Sept. 21 after a nearly six-month vacation from the show, during which Pitt had the chance to book artists such as Dua Lipa, Brad Paisley and Ben Platt for the dual roles of guest-hosting (live) and performing (prerecorded). While artists have free reign over video concepts, Pitt insists on live vocals, and in some cases, the Kimmel production team also edits and stitches together the raw performance footage sent in by the artist. “It’s very important to Jimmy that there be a live performance element,” says Pitt, who joined Kimmel in 2017 after 24 years as the booker for Conan O’Brien. “We’re totally cool with people getting creative and giving it music video elements, but it’s a fine line.”
What has changed about booking musical guests in 2020?
“I feel like there’s more music now than ever, and there are also a lot of ways to discover it. Who would’ve thought we’d be looking at the TikTok chart to base bookings?”

CBS
Diana Miller
Producer
Since Corden’s return to the studio in August, Miller has the show running on a hybrid model of both virtual and in-person guests — the latter thanks to a brand-new, audience-free studio in Television City, as well as a CBS safety precautions task force. The first three in-person guests were Usher, who discussed his 2021 Las Vegas residency; Dua Lipa, who updated the lyrics to her hits “New Rules” and “Don’t Start Now” to cover dating in the time of the pandemic; and Alicia Keys, who did a five-night residency to celebrate the release of her September album, ALICIA, including a nightly drive-in concert with guests like Bebe Rexha and Khalid. As for virtual performances, James Bay upped the ante by playing atop the towering London Eye observation wheel in August. “When we’re not in the studio,” says Miller, “how can you use that opportunity to do something different that couldn’t be done in-studio?” To maintain the sense of connection that comes with a live-to-tape show, Corden talks with most musical guests over Zoom as soon as they’re chosen. “I never want it to feel like we’re just tossing to a piece of tape that has nothing to do with us,” says Miller. “It gives artists the feeling that they’re with him.”
Will remote performances last on late-night TV beyond the pandemic?
“Way before any of this happened, I remember thinking that there’s so much money and effort spent in creating an in-studio performance, [and artists are] spending all this money on a performance and a music video — can’t we find a way to combine those things? This is a time where that’s actually happening. But I think that the second we can do it safely inside, we will.”

NBC
Jeremiah Silva
Talent executive
Silva, who has been with Seth Meyers since the show’s 2014 premiere, says he has always aimed for musical performances that “reflect what’s going on in the world” — and as political tensions soared amid the pandemic, that goal became all the more urgent. Two prerecorded remote performances in September exemplify his efforts: Country-soul singer Yola covered Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and Sheryl Crow sang her Donald Trump-lambasting new single, “In the End,” during an episode that included an interview with former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Not every performance offers political commentary though, and Silva says his ultimate goal is to let the artists’ creativity shine. It was rock band KALEO’s idea to perform while boating on a lake in its native Iceland, which Silva says not only felt “so on-brand for who that band is” but also was visually arresting: “Who doesn’t want to watch that?” While Meyers returned to the studio with a skeleton crew on Sept. 8, performances will remain remote.
Amid all the challenges of booking guests right now, has anything become easier?
“I’ve been able to book some artists that have never been on the show before, just because of logistics, like Tim McGraw and Jason Aldean. They didn’t have to come to New York.”

NBC
Lindsay Shookus
Producer
Brian Siedlecki
Coordinating producer
Rebecca Schwartz
Co-producer
After going into a four-week lockdown hiatus in early March, SNL’s 45th season closed out with three remotely produced SNL at Home episodes, including performances from Coldplay’s Chris Martin (who covered Bob Dylan’s “Shelter From the Storm”), Miley Cyrus (Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here”) and Boyz II Men with Babyface (who sang “A Song for Mama” tied to Mother’s Day). “The booking conversations focused on finding artists that could perform a song that felt fitting in the current climate,” says Siedlecki. SNL was looking for artists that "that felt warm and comforting," says Schwartz, to balance out "an unclear moment of chaos." Season 46 brought a return to 30 Rock and live shows, with precautions including coronavirus tests for audience members and no more than six performers onstage at a time. The Oct. 3 premiere, during which Megan Thee Stallion urged viewers to “protect our Black women” and live-debuted her new song “Don’t Stop” with a cameo from Young Thug, drew nearly 7.8 million viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research, marking the show’s most-viewed season debut in four years.
How did you prepare to return to the studio?
Shookus “It’s a completely new world. We have a lot of limitations on how many people can be on the music set and in the studio at one time. We have [personal protective equipment] and testing and [are] keeping social distance. Normally, we push against any limitations, but right now everyone understands and accepts it. Instead of complaining about how hard it is to figure out their performances, let’s just put our heads together and realize what we can do on that stage.”

Brittany Bosner
Music booking producer, NBC News
Each summer for 25 years, New York’s most fervent music fans have set early-morning alarms for the Today Citi Music Series at the Rockefeller Center plaza. This year, Bosner took the May through September series digital — fans applied online to join a “virtual plaza,” and a lucky few got to meet performers over video chat or win prizes like a guitar signed by Rascal Flatts. “The whole energy is those fans on the plaza,” says Bosner. “It’s such an important part of the series.” Today featured pretaped performances sent in by stars like Chloe X Halle (who sang their single “Do It” from a tennis court) and The Go-Go’s (who performed “We Got the Beat” and announced their new ’80s-themed American Girl doll). Bosner’s favorite booking? In July, Blake Shelton and partner Gwen Stefani performed their duet “Happy Anywhere” for the first time on TV from their porch, also offering Today the first look at its music video, which is now the fifth-most-popular of all time on the show’s website.
What are you looking for in bookings going forward?
“Artists across the board have released music with messages of hope, making people feel less alone, and that has been really important to us. Thomas Rhett released ‘Be a Light,’ and we had him call in to talk about why he was releasing it now.”

NBC
Julie Gurovitsch
Music producer
Fallon returned to NBC’s Rockefeller Center headquarters in July, and the following month, Gurovitsch booked Phish’s Trey Anastasio as the first in-studio performer since March — made possible because Anastasio “lives in New York and had been quarantining,” she says. While there have been no other in-studio musical guests yet, Gurovitsch has used remote performances to her advantage with prerecorded sets from geographically distant artists like Nigerian singer Tiwa Savage, South Korean girl group Blackpink and K-pop superstars BTS, which joined the show for a weeklong special in late September. “Instead of having artists fit themselves into the box that is our studio, they can showcase where they’re from,” says Gurovitsch. While she used to spend “five nights a week” scouting new talent at live concerts, she now relies on Zoom showcases and other virtual interactions to gauge stage presence — a strategy that has led to bookings for Gracie Abrams and Trevor Daniel, who performed from a hot air balloon in August. “You have to trust your gut much more,” says Gurovitsch.
What’s your biggest challenge right now, and how are you getting around it?
“I have a lot less control over the final outcome. It’s more often than not an exciting surprise, but I’ve lost the ability to provide input during a rehearsal. I try to have a phone call with an artist’s team before they film their performance and come up with the creative, making sure that what we’re going to receive makes sense and is appropriate for this time.”

Telemundo
Irasema Torres
Segment producer
Many of the artists who would normally travel to Un Nuevo Día’s Miami studio to perform come from outside the United States, and over the past six months those acts have “grabbed their phones and made it work,” says Torres — for instance, Luis Fonsi, of “Despacito” fame, hopped out of bed for a live acoustic performance of his new song “Girasoles” in May. Now in her seventh year at Telemundo, Torres thinks the shift to stripped-down performances works well for the daily morning show. There’s “no glam, no stylist; [artists are] just waking up and turning on their phone or computer to connect,” she says. “People are grabbing coffee while we’re talking to them, and it’s definitely something that has caught the attention of many.” Over the past few months, Un Nuevo Día’s guest list has included Mexican pop groups Camila and Reik, with most artists sending in prerecorded sets.
How has your approach to remote performances evolved over the past six months?
“At the beginning, we were not doing many performances [because of] the sensibility of what was happening in the world. Now, we’re back to dancing a little bit more, and having a little bit more fun.”

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