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:


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.

More TV

  • delete Me

    Viaplay Orders Young Adult Series 'Delete Me' From Norway (EXCLUSIVE)

    Viaplay, Scandinavia’s leading streaming service, has ordered “Delete Me,” a Norwegian form series skewing young adults and headlined by cast of up-and-comers. Written and directed by Marie Kristiansen (“Young and Promising”), the series uses innovative narrative techniques to explore vital contemporary topics such as cyber-bullying, hacking and exclusion. Each episode of 20 minutes is told [...]

  • Michael Bloomberg and Elizabeth WarrenNinth 2020

    MSNBC Democratic Debate Moderators Lost Control of a Messy Night (Column)

    After what seems like countless Democratic debates, February 19th’s had a giant curveball in Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor whose enormous fortune has given him a late, but undeniable, leg up in the race. So it was unsurprising that the prospect of Bloomberg making a play for the nomination at the 11th [...]

  • Combs Making the Band

    Diddy Sons Quincy Brown, Christian and Justin Combs Will Judge 'Making The Band'

    The panel of judges for the MTV reboot of “Making The Band” was revealed on Wednesday. Diddy’s sons Quincy Brown, Christian and Justin Combs along with creative director and celebrity choreographer LaurieAnn Gibson are all set to join the franchise. Diddy’s children all have careers spanning music, entertainment and fashion. “Making The Band” is based [...]

  • Lesley VisserFooty's Bubbles & Bones Gala,

    Lesley Visser to Receive Lifetime Achievement Award at 41st Sports Emmys

    Veteran sportscaster Lesley Visser will be honored with the lifetime achievement award at this year’s 41st annual Sports Emmys. It reps the first time a woman has received the accolade. “To be a pioneer at nearly every juncture of sports reporting isn’t easy despite how Lesley Visser makes it look, said Justine Gubar, executive director, [...]

  • TV News Roundup: Angelyne Signs on

    TV News Roundup: Angelyne Signs on to Produce Eponymous Peacock Series

    In today’s TV news roundup, Peacock’s limited series “Angelyne” got the titular woman as an executive producer, and Netflix announced premiere dates for “Ugly Delicious” and “Unorthodox.” DATES Netflix announced the premiere dates of new and returning shows coming this March: “Ugly Delicious” Season 2 is premiering March 6; “Marc Maron: End Times Fun” will launch March [...]

  • Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren,

    How to Watch the Nevada Democratic Debate Online

    The ninth Democratic presidential debate will take place Wednesday as six hopeful candidates take the stage ahead of the Nevada caucus on Feb. 22. NBC and MSNBC will broadcast the debate on their networks from 6 p.m. PT/ 9 p.m. ET to 8 p.m. PT/ 10 p.m. ET. Those wanting to tune in can also [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content