How Can Web Video Have a ‘Sharknado’ Moment?

/ Jul 12, 2013


I made a tragic mistake last night — I did not plan my evening around the premiere of a TV movie about sharks who get swept up in a tornado. Alas, a friend had free Dodgers tickets, so it wasn’t until I got home at 11:30 pm PT that I was able to sit down and watch SyFy’s “Sharknado” via my DVR.

Unfortunately, by then “Sharknado” as a cultural event was already over — the Twitter frenzy had subsided, and every good joke to be told had already been tweeted by someone else. I watched for about an hour or so, but eventually turned it off to watch another episode of “Orange Is the New Black.”

What “Sharknado” brought into relief, though, was an issue for the web video world that’s becoming increasingly prominent: How might digitally-distributed content — especially narrative content — have a zeitgeist moment like that?

While official ratings are not available yet, “Sharknado” was the definition of a live event thanks to those commenting on Twitter: #Sharknado was a national trending topic last night, putting it on par with events like the Oscars or the Super Bowl. Heck, even though more than half of American households now have DVRs, people were even watching commercials:

The vast majority of web video out there is superior to “Sharknado” (at the very least, I’m sure Freddie Wong could animate a much more convincing CGI shark) but it’s the very rare piece of content that manages to penetrate the cultural imagination on this level. What are some key lessons to take away from last night?

Have a clear brand, right from the get-go

“Sharknado” hardly came out of nowhere: Ridiculous monster movies featuring C-list celebs have been a SyFy tradition since its Sci-Fi Channel days.

It wasn’t until Deborah Gibson’s 2009 star turn in “Mega Shark Versus Giant Octopus” that the genre really broke out into the mainstream, but when you hear that “Sharknado” is airing on SyFy tonight, you have a pretty good sense of what you’re getting.

Bring in the big personalities

I’m not talking about Ian Ziering and Tara Reid here — I’m talking about those who not only broadcasted their anticipation for the film, but their reactions to it. Wil Wheaton, Patton Oswald, and other Twitter elite were a huge part of driving online buzz for the film, and their excitement was key.

Make it live, or make it scarce

Whatever the ultimate strategy might be, a live element would seem to be key to it — something that creates the sense of scarcity or urgency, whether it be missing the opportunity to interact directly with the content being watched, or just the fear that you’ll miss something.

In “Sharknado”‘s case, the idea of mocking the film alongside all your favorite Twitter friends was half the fun of the experience — and one that’s difficult to recapture.

This may be where live video trumps VOD. Felix Baumgartner’s space jump brought in eight million live online viewers for Red Bull last fall (it was also broadcast on National Geographic). How many of those eight million people were watching to see if something went wrong, before editors could clean things up for VOD?

It’s either really really good, or really really bad

Truly great or truly terrible television is like (pardon the metaphor) blood in the water for Twitter users — it’s what makes programming like “Game of Thrones” or “Big Brother” into appointment TV.

Whatever it is, it has to inspire an extreme reaction — which, if you think about it, is the definition of zeitgeist.

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