Why Glee Is TV’s Most Web Video-Savvy Series (and Why It Isn’t)

I spent last night slaving away on a very important task — catching up on the last several episodes of Fox’s Glee. (s NWS) And while we’ve written extensively over the last year about the show’s online marketing last fall, its Twitter popularity and its use of MySpace for casting calls, watching several consecutive episodes tingled my spidey-sense.

For even beyond casual mentions of online personalities like Perez Hilton, there’s an innate awareness at play here of how web video affects pop culture. Here are some examples (which may include spoilers):

Episode 1×15: The Power of Madonna

When Glee returned from its mid-season hiatus in April, it wasn’t the first episode back that people were excited for — nope, fans were chomping at the bit for the second episode, an all-Madonna tribute. And to get them excited, the full version of Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch)’s recreation of Madonna’s Vogue video was released a week in advance on Hulu. (The video also aired on Fox that night.) The Hulu version is now offline, but below is a brief behind-the-scenes look at it.

Episode 1×17: Bad Reputation

In this episode, a video of Sue spaz-dancing to Olivia Newton-John’s Let’s Get Physical gets discovered by our teen heroes, and the same thing that happened to the Star Wars kid happens to her — it’s uploaded to YouTube (s GOOG) and ridicule ensues. However, once it passes three million views, Newton-John herself sees it and recruits Sue to co-star in an update of Physical, hoping to capitalize on Sue’s new viral fame. Go ahead and tell me that doesn’t sound like a real story of an accidental viral video success that we’d report on seriously here at NewTeeVee. Go on, tell me.

Episode 1×19: Dream On

First, the obvious one: While this episode guest-starring Neil Patrick Harris and directed by Joss Whedon managed to avoid any obvious references to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog, it did manage to capture some of that same magic. (Translation: Guys it was totally the best ever.) Exhibit A: NPH duels Matthew Morrison in the following rendition of Aerosmith’s Dream On.

But there’s actually another, more interesting moment — a number using Men Without Hats’s Safety Dance, in which both the concept and execution invoke the now kinda-cliche flash mob virals that have circulated over the last few years. The film quality even switches to video for several shots.

In addition to these examples and whatever might occur during next week’s season finale, there are already rumors about what the next season might hold. Just one of them: Last summer’s viral heartbreaker Susan Boyle may guest star in the upcoming second season, according to Tim Stack at Entertainment Weekly. The idea “has been pitched” to her people, producer Ryan Murphy says.

But while the actual show seems to have no trouble understanding the world of web video and at times even actively engaging it, the same can’t be said for Fox’s approach to the show’s online distribution. Let’s be upfront — while Hulu and Fox.com both host an impressive array of behind-the-scenes clips, the best part of Glee are the musical numbers. They’re what engage new audiences and provoke discussion — which goes double when you consider how much music videos in general are now driving web traffic.

Yet to find the above embedded clips, I had to create them myself using Hulu, and not only are they geo-blocked but they’ll expire as soon as the episode is taken offline. Sue Sylvester’s Vogue is off Hulu entirely, and while a version does remain on the official Fox Broadcasting YouTube channel, it’s not embeddable.

The musical numbers are the best advertising possible for the show, and yet it seems like Fox makes it actively difficult for them to spread around. Music rights are a pain to clear, I get that, but this is a show based around the music — why not invest some marketing dollars in allowing people to share their favorites?

Conclusion: On the creative side, it’s clear the team producing this show knows their way around ye olde interwebs. I just wish that I could say the same about those packaging it online.

Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): The State of Social TV