Fan favorites like “The Sound of Music,” “Grease” and “The Wiz” hit both stage and screen decades ago. Millions have committed every scene between Maria and the von Trapp family to memory and know every word exchanged between Danny Zuko and Sandy Olsson by heart. Recently, these musicals have sparked even heavier nostalgia in the form of must-see live TV events that audiences are flocking to in droves.
And the conversation about said shows extends beyond the small screen.
On any given live musical night, viewers congregate on social media, creating a phenomenon usually associated only with sports, political events and awards shows.
“Live musicals created an atmosphere where either you were participating and engaging with it while it’s happening or it’s over and it’s gone,” says Jason Klein, co-founder of ListenFirst Media, a company that analyzes online activity and provides a digital audience rating for all TV programs. “That’s what makes them a unique viewing experience that plays really well to social media: either you’re in or you’re out.”
This particular audience is all in. Case in point: The night “The Wiz Live!” aired on Dec. 3, NBC saw a digital audience rating increase of 40% across platforms that include Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube and even web searches. Out of 2.2 million engagements across digital and social platforms, 67% were taking place on Twitter — 1.6 million tweets in total.
While not on par with top awards shows like the Oscars and Grammys, which receive between 7 million and 8 million tweets, specials like “Grease Live!” and “The Wiz Live!” perform similarly with events like the Miss Universe Pageant, Golden Globes and Billboard Music Awards, far exceeding regular TV program episodes and even finales. For perspective, the day “The Blacklist” premiered, NBC saw a digital engagement increase of 35%, but only 9% of those interactions were on Twitter.
“Live television musicals are the ultimate live event,” says Cait Hood, head of broadcast partnerships at Twitter. “We grew up loving these storylines, having these favorite, iconic moments and memories around the shows that we can all relate to. I think that nostalgia compels people to really reference the throwbacks and engage with that live audience. And I think that’s why the live musicals have become so popular, specifically on Twitter.”
The importance of social media is not lost on the networks putting on these productions. As part of its digital marketing campaign, NBC has identified four target areas: tapping into nostalgia, building anticipation, influencer activation, and live engagement.
“It’s paramount,” says Rob Hayes, head of digital strategy at NBC. “As a broadcaster it’s much more gratifying marketing through these social media platforms than some of the traditional ways, because we’re really engaging with the fans. We get to create content for them.”
What may come across as spontaneous sharing of information leading up to the main event — actors posting photos from rehearsals on Twitter and Instagram, or candid behind the scenes moments on Snapchat and Facebook — is a well-crafted campaign that takes place across all social media platforms.
For “Grease Live!,” “we chose a very social cast, purposely, so we could leverage each one of their fan bases to create more awareness as well as more excitement and enthusiasm,” says Angela Courtin, chief marketing officer of Fox. “We had a lot of young cast who had a social media following, especially with the millennials audience, and these fans came to see what this was all about.”
The idea is that on the day of the performance the broadcast becomes a communal experience of massive proportions.
“When you’re doing live musicals, it’s walking a tightrope,” says Courtin. “So there’s the, ‘Oh my God, are they going to be able to pull it off?’ ”But in addition to the suspense of whether there will be technical glitches or someone will freeze on live TV, there is a constant flurry of content pushed out during the show for viewers to consume.
“You cannot underestimate the power of the network consistently live Tweeting and pushing meaningful content in real time,” Hood says.
If you’re lucky, a celebrity will come out to play. Chrissy Teigen and Anna Kendrick both expressed their enthusiasm during the broadcast of “Grease Live!” with Kendrick’s tweets reaching more than 33 million views.
“We didn’t pay them. We didn’t reach out to them, We certainly thanked them afterwards” Courtin says. “They just wanted to share their fandom with the rest of the world.”
And then, of course, there are the things you cannot change. As with any live broadcast there is an opportunity for endless snark — a sideshow that has become as fascinating as the broadcast itself.
“Twitter is a forum for self-expression, so people who are funny in real life, have an easy time showing that on Twitter,” Hood says. “You can’t stop that. You may as well embrace it.”