By Lee Watson with Collin Pelton
Shows get cancelled. That spells heartbreak for the viewers who form an emotional bond with a show. In 1977, I first experienced this with the television show Emergency! I wrote letters to the local affiliate, and even to the far-off world of California. I expressed my disappointment with a level of fascination and curiosity about the Los Angeles County Fire Department that can only exist in a seven-year-old. The reply was a form letter, unapologetically killing any hope that the show might return.
In the forty-plus years since, the dynamic and narrative have remained the same. Network shows are measured using the time-honored Nielsen ratings that define success. Even with rapidly evolving viewing habits, the number of people watching a show each week at a fixed time rules the landscape. Emotional connections with viewers are not justification for business decisions. Until now. Until The Expanse.
The Expanse, based on the novels of Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck writing as James S. A. Corey, became must-see television for about 600,000 viewers a week over the course of two-and-a-half seasons. The show generated exceptionally positive reviews from both critics and viewers, and was recognized as being one of the most scientifically accurate science fiction shows ever. On May 8, despite a stated love for the show, SyFy announced that it would not be renewing The Expanse for a fourth season.
What happened in the next 18 days was historic. A non-traditional, viewer-funded campaign resulted in a plane with a “#SavetheExpanse” banner being flown around Amazon Studios. A model of the show’s spacecraft was launched to the edge of space. Social media was the common thread. How those social media channels were used changed the traditional narrative surrounding cancellation. On May 26, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon Studios was picking up the show. In a moment that epitomizes much of Alcon Entertainment’s production – Bezos made the announcement live on Twitter during a discussion of space initiatives, with several of the show’s principal cast members in the audience.
Precursors to Change
In order to understand why Amazon Studios resurrected the show, you have to first take a look at the key social media accounts, specifically Twitter, of those involved in Alcon’s production. Twitter activity by cast members of ABC’s The Crossing, NBC’s Timeless, and FOX’s Brooklyn 99 was reviewed. Six accounts were analyzed for each show.
Prior to Expanse’s cancellation on May 8th, the cast and crew of The Expanse were routinely engaging with their audience about the show. Engagement came in the form of replies to tweets in which the cast/crew were tagged, in commenting on and retweeting comments by viewers, and simply liking viewer tweets. Cast and crew also frequently engaged with each other about the show.
One of the first significant measures lies simply in the amount of Twitter activity. The cast and crew of The Expanse were responsible for 1,917 tweets in the 14 days before and 14 days after the cancellation announcement. By comparison, cast and crew of the NBC series Timeless tweeted 1,091 times and ABC’s The Crossing, 123 times surrounding their respective cancellation notices. More importantly, Expanse accounts tweeted 1,376 times after the announcement; the cast and crew of the other three shows tweeted a combined 629 times post-cancellation.
The content of cast and crew member tweets varied dramatically. An overwhelming majority of tweets by The Expanse cast and crew focused on the show and its characters. Cast members coordinated “live-tweeting” during both the east and west coast broadcasts, collaborated on tweets, and used tweets written in advance to highlight important plot points or character interactions. Many tweets by the cast were done in-character, with tweets mirroring the unique language and accents of the show. In contrast, other show casts tweeted primarily from their personal perspective – political and/or social views, personal appearances, or interaction with other personalities. Tweets only tangentially referred to the show cancellation and / or efforts to “save” the show. The main exception to this pattern was the Timeless writer’s room account, but with only 127 tweets in the study period its impact was limited. The direct interaction between cast and viewership via social media is relatively new to the entertainment industry; in the past there were barriers that limited the viewer’s ability to interact directly with the production. The cast and crew of The Expanse recognized and embraced their ability to interact directly with viewers. Even though cumulatively the cast and crew had only a fraction of the followers of other cancelled network shows, they routinely were more effective at engagement. The average Expanse account has 11,885 followers; the other accounts reviewed carried an average 201,179 followers.
There are two specific concepts that become very relevant in understanding why the campaign to save Expanse represents a shift in behavior. First, there is the concept of viewer reach. Viewer reach is the maximum percentage of live viewers that an individual cast/crew member could potentially reach via the particular social media platform. Reach varies widely among a sampling of shows and cast members. The vertical bars show the number of Twitter followers and the average live plus same day viewers for the most recent six episodes of each show. The line represents the viewer reach of a single tweet, represented as a percentage on the right.
Viewer reach is a soft boundary, but a relevant one. A cast member with a smaller reach cannot overcome the natural limitation without a specific plan for action. For example, even if Cas Anvar of The Expanse tweets three times, he will not equal the reach of a single tweet by Stephanie Beatriz of Brooklyn 99. One finding of particular note is the relatively low reach associated with cast members of Timeless and The Crossing. Both shows have same-day viewership exceeding 2 million, but only one principal cast member has a Twitter following exceeding 100,000 persons. Brooklyn 99 is the exception, with an average viewership of 1.75 million and three cast members exceeding 500 thousand Twitter followers.
Where The Expanse punched above its weight lies in their use of Twitter to efficiently engage those viewers within their reach. Engagement is a term often thrown around as a metric for social media sites. In looking at The Expanse, the concept had to be constructed more narrowly. While engagement for a single tweet or individual is easily understood, comparing the relative effectiveness given the wide variation in follower quantity, television audience, and reach required careful consideration. A new measure was created to evaluate how followers interacted with and crew tweets before and after each cancellation announcement. Follower engagement is a calculated measure, showing how many interactions Twitter users had with the cast/crew member over that time period. The measure showed that followers of the Expanse accounts replied to, retweeted, or liked updates at almost four times the rate of those following Brooklyn 99.
The data on engagement also points to the importance of the two writer’s room accounts studied. Both @TheExpanseWR and @TheTimelessOffice demonstrated the highest level of engagement at 16.1 and 6.8 interactions per follower. In looking at individual tweets, these were exclusively about their respective show’s content.
The Cancellation and Aftermath
With SyFy’s announcement that The Expanse was not being picked up for a fourth season, there was an immediate reaction by both the viewership and the cast/crew. Initially spontaneous in nature, Expanse cast member Cas Anvar and his team quickly took on a leadership role. Anvar and the Writer’s Room account were responsible for over one-third of all tweets analyzed, with Anvar having a full 50 percent more tweets than any other individual account.
Over the course of the fourteen days after SyFy’s announcement, Anvar and the other Expanse accounts provided key messaging that contributed to the ultimate resurrection by Amazon Studios.
- First, they explained why SyFy was forced to cancel the series through live video and discouraged any negative messaging.
- Second, they issued a focused call to action by explaining how to improve ratings to show potential buyers that the viewership was fully engaged.
- Finally, they coordinated use of specific hashtags and user tagging to take advantage of Twitter’s trending algorithms.
The campaign made a difference. Anvar live-streamed multiple times, promoted across social media platforms, explaining the ratings – specifically the importance of “Live + 3” – as it related to The Expanse and its contract with SyFy. Followers who typically watched the show on online platforms, or DVR beyond three days, were instructed to turn on their televisions, or even multiple televisions, tuned to SyFy. In the first episode after the announcement, ratings indicated a 9.7% increase in “same day” viewing. The next episode saw an additional 2 percent jump. Compared to the show’s second season average, the two episodes were up over 14 percent. While not enough to reverse SyFy’s business decision, the jump was noticeable enough to gather media attention and raise the show’s profile.
Of equal importance was the nature of Twitter interactions between the cast and their audience after the cancellation. Out of the four shows studied, The Expanse cast and crew accounts were the only such accounts to actively promote, encourage and coordinate social media efforts. While a similar, equally interesting campaign is underway to save Timeless, outside of the Writer’s account there has been limited engagement of the cast in the process. Even though they have a vested interest in the show’s return, they have not demonstrated a high level of support for initiatives undertaken by the fans.
The single highest-engaged tweets studied occurred when Expanse fans flew a banner over Amazon Studios. An individual tweeting for @TheExpanseWR was onsite at Amazon Studios; engagement for a tweet during the flyover was interacted with at more than 100 percent – meaning more people interacted with the tweet than actually follow the account. By comparison, Stephanie Beatriz’s tweet promoting the renewal of Brooklyn 99 only achieved 77 percent engagement.
The Twitter data has already revealed some simple lessons that productions should take note of.
Use your social media account to support your show, cast and crew. Many high-profile accounts engage with their personal views and interests more frequently than the scope of a particular role or show. Viewers follow you for those roles, and you have more influence than you probably realize.
Make your interactions meaningful. Taking the time to provide an actual response cements the emotional connection between viewer and show. Simply throwing a couple heart emojis on a retweet is nice, but providing a meaningful text response is more effective. Recognize when viewers do something, such as a caricature or video montage.
Provide direction as a single, unified entity. One of the hallmarks of The Expanse’s campaign was the ability of all those involved to be on the proverbial same page. Using clear, coordinated messaging and tagging coordinated by the cast/crew allowed the campaign to garner as much as two to three times the engagement of other “save this show” campaigns.
Viewers are interested in what YOU do even if it’s not in front of the camera. There’s a reason writer’s room and production accounts are exploding among shows. Bob Munroe, the visual effects supervisor for many Expanse episodes, had an extremely high level of engagement considering his account’s limited number of followers.
The Shatner Rule. During the #SaveTheExpanse campaign, William Shatner tweeted some specific advice that helped focus and strengthen efforts. First, coordinate the use of no more than two hashtags per tweet. Second, don’t dilute your message by tagging everyone – in this case, multiple studios that may have had an interest. Focus efforts on reaching your audience in tagging no more than two other accounts. This advice helped #SaveTheExpanse reach “trending” status on at least two occasions.
There are a lot more lessons to be learned from a studying how The Expanse survived a very painful cancellation season. Why did The Expanse get renewed? Ultimately, because it’s a quality show with a solid viewer base that Amazon believes will be profitable. Without a doubt, the social media campaign impacted viewership in the critical two weeks after SyFy’s cancellation announcement. The social media campaign, coupled with the unique fan-driven activities, raised the profile of the show and garnered national media attention. Like the complex characters portrayed so well on the show by Cas Anvar and the Rocinante crew, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.