On Wednesday night, audiences flocked back into the redneck paradise of Duck Dynasty, the A&E reality show about a bayou family in Louisiana who manufacture duck calls and cultivate beards. It's the most-watched reality series on cable TV, second only to Walking Dead in terms of overall audience. Last season, its third, Duck Dynasty averaged 8.4 million viewers; its finale drew a record . (For a point of comparison, May’s American Idol finale drew just a smidgen more: 14.3 million.)
So what’s behind the show’s popularity? One answer is Twitter.
Duck Dynasty has an incredibly aggressive social media presence, especially on Twitter. In addition to all the de rigueur Twitter protocol, such as cast members live-tweeting during the show, Duck Dynasty organizes games—for example, when viewers see Uncle Si, the show’s Willie Nelson look-alike, ‘Nam vet, holding up a sign with his signature phrase ("HEY"), on the bottom of their screen, they can tweet specific hashtags for prizes. And the show’s most vocal Twitter fans are rewarded with special content that they can use to, yes, continue to wax on about Duck Dynasty.
But if Duck Dynasty is a signpost for Twitter’s new ratings muscle, it presents a bit of a conundrum as to why. Yes, it’s a reality show (which, along with live events, are shown to be the most affected by Twitter), but in almost every other way it defies the typical Twitter show, including series such as Pretty Little Liars, which cater to Twitter’s dominant audience: young girls.
"Conventional wisdom was that shows only worked on Twitter if they were young, female, and urban," says Guy Slattery, executive vice president of marketing at A&E. "I think Duck Dynasty breaks all those rules for the most part. It skews a little more male. It’s young, but the median age is 39."
Not exactly your typical Gossip Girl.
Slattery calls Duck Dynasty "an inherently social show," meaning that it trades on a whole slew of quirky catchphrases (such as "Happy happy happy," "Yuppie boys," and "He gone!"), that infectiously carry over to the workplace or school yard. Also, he says, "The Robertsons are a real family and they’ve really embraced Twitter.
"You can pretty much connect to them instantly on Twitter. That brings people close to the family and that’s why it works so well."
As a result, the show frequently trends on Twitter multiple times while it’s on the air. Which, according to Slattery, helps boost ratings.
"We feel that (Twitter) does have a positive effect on ratings," Slattery says. "All you’ve got to do is look at Twitter, and common sense tells you that’s the case. People talking about a show with each other—word of mouth—has always been the way TV is spread. The word-of-mouth conversation is just happening a lot quicker now, and it’s happening to a large degree on Twitter."
This anecdotal observation was backed up last week by Nielsen, which published a study showing a causal relationship between Twitter and ratings. But the research was hardly all-conclusive. Of the 221 broadcast episodes that were included in the study, the tweet-to-ratings causality was only evident among 29% of the episodes. As to specifics, such as how many tweets exactly does it take to lift ratings, Nielsen doesn’t know. Still, it offered an academic argument for what, as Slattery says, is common sense: There’s a link between what you watch on TV and what you tweet about.
Slattery promises many Twitter-related bells and whistles this season. Soon we'll know what that means for ratings.