By the time you read this, the number of views racked up by Zach Galifianakis and Barack Obama for the latest episode of “Between Two Ferns” will be about 16 million.
That’s interesting for a couple of reasons. One reason is that 16 million people constitute a slightly bigger audience than viewed the top-rated network prime-time show of last week, “The Big Bang Theory.” The second reason is that the video’s home is FunnyorDie.com, a Web site with a negligible base audience. The vast majority of the views were by referral on Twitter, Facebook and so on.
Which is exactly the strategy that twice got the social(media)ist Obama elected, and that undergirds FunnyOrDie’s business model. Not only is FunnyorDie a media company that sells advertising against socially generated page views, it is a production company/studio that makes comedies for cable -- but with a major differentiating benefit.
“When we go to sell a TV show,” says CEO Dick Glover, “we’re not just selling a production company, we’re selling all the assets of our company -- which includes 8 million Twitter followers, number one comedy brand on Twitter; which includes 5.6 mm Facebook likes, Tumblr Followers, Google+ followers etc. etc. etc. “
For instance, the company produces a 4-night-a-week strip on Comedy Central called @Midnight.
“@Midnight has a segment that’s called Hashtag Wars,” Glover says. “That segment every night is a trending topic on Twitter.”
Social media are not merely an advantage on streaming media; they are its oxygen. Think back to the Web series “Quarterlife,” produced by the
venerable Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick of “Thirtysomething” and “Traffic” fame back in 2007. At the time, Herskovitz told me of calling in every chit he ever
accumulated to produce the series for pennies on the dollar, with the plan of moving it to network TV. But while the episodes attracted 300,000 views each on MySpace, that was far short of the
critical mass required -- especially in a low-CPM Web ad environment -- to cover even the bare-bones production costs. And the eventual move to NBC, amid historically horrific ratings, lasted exactly
Back then, Herskovitz ruefully noted the title of the book I was writing. “’The Chaos Scenario?’” he said. “I’m living it.”
David Tochterman, head of digital for the talent agency Innovative Artists, remembers the whole sad affair vividly. It reminds him of essentially every other Web series of the day -- i.e., lacking the wherewithal to get noticed beyond even the most faithful core audience.
“I remember when that show hit the marketplace,” Tochterman says. “The social media ecosystem to drive that audience was not in place then. It was just wishful thinking.”
Virality, such that it was, was mainly a function of email forwards. Just seven years later we are immersed in a sharing culture and increasingly significant sharing economy.
“Now,” Tochterman says, “you have a social media ecosystem that can create the kind of engagement and the kind of traffic that really can travel into prime time and really can lift a show.”
Yes. Or a not-even show. On YouTube, certain contributors generate vast audiences because they reside on a site that is distributor, player, search engine and social network rolled into one. Kingsley and Jenna Marbles, two twenty-somethings catering to teens with their profane but astute and funny cultural riffs, each have several million channel subscribers. The Swedish gamer PewDiePie, who plays video games and narrates the action as he plays, generated 2.3 billion views last year.
Big bang that.
No wonder broadcast is cultivating social now, too. Late-night Jimmys Fallon and Kimmel both have online audiences larger than their TV ones. And as Tochterman observes, Hollywood has figured that out.
“When they’re now deciding about casting pilots and I think it’s even extended to movies, they’re looking at people’s social media footprints. They are looking at how many followers they have on Twitter. How many people following them on Facebook. What kind of YouTube channel they have. Those metrics actually matter.”
But more than likely, too little, too late. “The Big Bang Theory”’s Number 1 prime-time audience of 16 million is 2 million less than PewDiePie got by playing the game Happy Wheels with a camera running. The network audience is a vestige of the past. The networked audience is the future.