The real point of Sharknado’s online frenzy

Ratings weren’t great, but SyFy got big social-media buzz
Sharknado screen grab. (YouTube)

If you use Twitter, it was hard to get away from Sharknado late last week, and the inevitable question that accompanied it: “What the heck is Sharknado?”

If you still don’t know, Sharknado is a low-budget movie produced by U.S. network SyFy about an out-of-control tornado that sucks up sharks from the ocean, then rains them down on Los Angeles. If the premise wasn’t bonkers enough, the movie stars car-wreck celebrity Tara Reid and Steve Sanders… er, Ian Ziering, who really hasn’t done much since the original Beverly Hills 90210. Put all that together and SyFy had all the makings of a viral hit.

Which is exactly what it was. The two-hour movie, which aired Thursday night, had 387,000 comments made about it, according to the New York Times — mostly on Twitter. It topped out at 5,000 tweets per minute towards its climax. SyFy wasted no time in proclaiming Sharknado its “most social telecast ever.”

That didn’t stop some media observers from trying to rain on the Sharknado parade. The Times described how the movie tore up Twitter, but not the ratings, garnering only 1.37 million viewers, or slightly better than what the network usually pulls on Thursday nights. The Atlantic went a step further, comparing the movie to another Twitter sensation – Game of Thrones, and its recent “Red Wedding” episode in particular. “Sharknado had 13 times more tweets-per-viewer than one of the most tweeted-about shows on TV,” the story said. But it went on to point out that it got less than a fifth of the viewers.

Both observations kind of miss the point. First off, very few people knew what Sharknado was and that it was, in fact, coming. I saw the movie’s poster on Facebook a few days prior to airing and instantly thought, “Oh yeah, I’ll watch that,” but I didn’t actually make the effort to find out when it was going to be on. Of course, Canadians don’t get SyFy, so we had to wait until Friday, anyway. There were obviously many people in similar situations. We were caught unaware because Sharknado’s original air date wasn’t promoted all that well.

That’s also why comparing it to Game of Thrones, an ongoing series, isn’t fair. Game of Thrones has been on since 2011, and has built a big fan base during that time. By this point, it’s a pop-culture phenomenon. Of course it’s going to get better ratings than a silly B-movie.

But it’s also a mistake to discount Sharknado’s social-media frenzy. As anyone who has ever advertised anything can attest to, it’s not easy to have something go viral. When it does happen, it can lead to good things.

For one, SyFy has already scheduled a repeat airing of the movie for this Thursday — it’ll be interesting to see whether the ratings are any better. A sequel, meanwhile, is already being discussed. We have to imagine that, given its production values, one could be pulled together in a weekend or so.

Secondly, as Wired detailed in a recent feature, ratings are no longer the only measure of success for broadcast. Social media buzz can be just as important. Chris Jaffe, Netflix’s director of product innovation, told me the same thing last month in regards to Hemlock Grove. The company hasn’t disclosed how many people viewed its exclusive horror series, which was panned by critics. Nevertheless, it garnered attention on Twitter, and Netflix considers it a success. “A show like this doesn’t have to be watched by 90 million people,” Jaffe said. “If shows find audiences, we can see that and make relative judgments there. It doesn’t have to be as cold and calculating as a formula.” Lo and behold, Hemlock Grove is getting a second season.

In that vein, Sharknado has another success metric to add to its haul: it was one of the most-pirated movies over the weekend, cracking The Pirate Bay’s top 100. Getting downloaded more than Iron Man 3 is no shallow accomplishment.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest potential accomplishment will be in establishing a brand for SyFy. Sharknado has spread word like nothing before about the network’s other ludicrous movies, which include such gems as MansquitoMongolian Death Worm and Sharktopus. (My all-time favourite is Almighty Thor, a cheap knock-off of the Marvel blockbuster in which the God of Thunder resorts to using an Uzi machine gun against his villainous brother Loki.) If SyFy can capitalize on its viral social-media moment, it will be well on its way to owning the modern-day B-movie. A quick glance at my DVD collection tells me there’s definitely a market for that.