Mark Ritson

Sharknado is a made-for-TV movie from the Syfy channel screened last Thursday night in the US in which global warming (or something) had caused hundreds of sharks to group together off the Pacific Coast and then be sucked into a giant tornado. The resulting storm then rained 20-foot killer sharks down on an unprepared and increasingly bloody population that included Tara Reid and a collection of other, even lesser, celebrities.

The exact moment when we reached the nadir of Western culture came about an hour in when handsome local cop Matt, played by Chuck Hittinger, decided he was not simply going to stand there and wait to eaten by a shark attacking him from above. In a speech that had more than a hint of Churchillian defiance, Matt tells his friends: “Instead of letting live sharks rain down on people, we’re going to get in that chopper and throw bombs into the tornadoes”. Mighty words indeed.

The Syfy channel has been making these schlocky home-grown movies for about a decade. Tight budgets and a paucity of cheap, straight-to-video releases has meant that the channel has increasingly turned to its own low-budget film-making instead. For around £1m, Syfy has been knocking out low-budget horror flicks like ‘Chupacabra vs the Alamo’ and ‘Mega Python vs Gatoroid’ to fill its evening schedules.

What made last week’s Sharknado movie so special was that it managed to hit some kind of social media nerve. On the evening shortly before its broadcast, word began to spread across Twitter. At the height of the frenzy, at around 9pm, more than 5,000 tweets a minute were mentioning the movie. By 3am the next day more than half a million tweets had included Sharknado in their message. Celebrities as diverse as Mia Farrow, Olivia Wild and Cory Monteith, the Glee star who tragically died this week, chimed in on Twitter to share their passion for the movie. 

So it was no surprise to find so many headlines on the social buzz the next day. Most US media outlets reported the huge Twitter numbers but then went on to point out one other important detail: despite the plethora of social media coverage, the movie itself had been watched by a relatively small audience. Headline after headline reported the remarkable upswing in social media coverage and the underperformance of the movie itself.

Only 1.4 million people tuned in, at any one time, to watch Sharknado. That’s less than a third of the audience that sitcom The Big Bang Theory managed to pull in that evening. More tellingly, it’s well under the typical audience size that the Syfy channel expects for its home-grown movies. ‘Chupacabra vs the Alamo’, for example, managed a significantly bigger audience share despite being in the same time slot as Sharknado and being screened without any of the social media buzz.

As usual the executives involved with the product were still drinking from the usual big bottle of social media kool aid. Syfy’s executive vice-president of programming and original movies, Thomas Vitale, told Time magazine that despite low ratings he considered the impact of social media a huge success. “The funny thing is with this movie the Nielsen rating isn’t as important as the social media and the engagement,” Vitale said. “We already know that this movie was a success.”

It’s an interesting perspective considering Syfy makes its money from advertising dollars (which are based on ratings) and cable subscriptions (also based on ratings). But what makes the Sharknado coverage interesting is not the blind faith of a manager who thinks social media coverage beats all other metrics hands down, it’s the more objective and even cynical coverage of the saga by the mainstream press.

As recently as January journalists were still befuddled with social media – claiming that Oreo had “won” the Super Bowl advertising contest with its ridiculously insignificant tweet to some 150,000 people. Six months later and, it would appear, the media is finally starting to take a more objective view of the impact of social media and openly questioning whether the impact of the swirling tornado of tweets really has any bite at all. 

Mark Ritson is PPA columnist of the year 2013