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Discovery’s #Skywire: Is Social Media the New Lead-In?

Apologies, Discovery: amid a slew of errands, apartment cleaning, pilot watching and Super Moon glancing, I had forgotten that Nik Wallenda was planning to make history and tightrope walk across the Grand Canyon, sans harness. These things happen.

But, when I opened Twitter for a quick scroll Sunday evening, I quickly lunged for the remote — upon reading my feed filled with tweets about Wallenda’s perilous stunt (and his jeans, and his knowledge of every synonym for “God”), I knew had to tune in.

It was New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s tweet that initially caught my attention:

Oh man, this sounds intense. I better turn it on, I thought.

Pretty soon, I was in on the conversation:

https://twitter.com/Variety_AJM/status/348984137660657664

I, like hundreds of thousands of other views Sunday night, turned on Discovery’s “Skywire Live with Nik Wallenda” after witnessing the social media frenzy surrounding the daredevil’s Grand Canyon wire walk. Twitter tags including “Wallenda,” “Skywire” and even “Yes Jesus” (Wallenda’s favorite, stress-induced catchphrase during his walk) trended nationally, and the live broadcast at its peak accrued almost 40,000 tweets per minute.

The ratings for “Skywire” strongly suggest that social media stimulated viewership. “Skywire’s” preshow drew a solid 6.25 million viewers, and the main event — broadcast live from 9:10-10:20 p.m. EST — averaged 10.68 million viewers.

But it was the actual walk segment — from 9:38-10:01 p.m. — that delivered just shy of 13 million viewers. This surge in viewership during the Grand Canyon wire walk itself, which occurred during a rather uneven time during the broadcast, must derive a significant portion of its audience from social media users who tuned in after seeing the digital chatter.

These numbers — both in ratings and social media — are huge for Discovery. But, more importantly, they exemplify the growing importance of social media in driving viewership, instead of merely proving viewership after the fact. During a time in TV where broadcast execs still emphasize the importance of a traditional lead-in program, “Skywire” proved that trending topics can serve as a lead-in themselves.

Using Twitter as a lead-in shifts the retroactive approach to social media that networks currently have. Aside from promoted tweets and hashtags, nets typically leverage social media stats after a broadcast in order to supplement hard Nielsen data. Look, people were talking about this show, too, the press releases translate to.

But approaching social media as the new lead-in allows nets to be proactive in driving viewership in a way they typically aren’t able to be. With traditional television lead-ins, you must rely on viewers being tuned into your preceding show, and sticking around for your targeted broadcast. This is a challenging balancing act that calls for complementary programming, and solid ratings for the lead-in.

Social media offers a far more blanket approach to promoting a show on TV — any social media user watching any TV program (or none, in my case), can be nudged into tuning in when they notice a flood of hashtags. Thanks to trending topics and the rapid-fire watercooler effect of Twitter, networks can cast their nets wide, and draw viewers that would not have otherwise known about their content.

Social media’s effects on television viewing is still the Wild Wild West, with countless digital companies trying to quantify — and monetize — this spectrum. “Skywire” also stands as a special programming scenario, since the stakes of the live broadcast were literally life or death, giving the event urgency to tune in. But “Skywire” managed to be DVR-proof and stronghold social media with its live broadcast, something all programs aspire to achieve.

How do you replicate this kind of social media and television magic in the future? It shouldn’t take a wire walker and the Grand Canyon, but it will require balance and patience, something Nik Wallenda certainly understands.

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