At a time when even the mighty National Football League is seeing its ratings on traditional TV decline, an irreverent, often crude, animated series marked its 20th anniversary on cable by posting a 27% increase in linear viewing.
How South Park opened its latest season with a bang provides a ray of hope that through a combination of art and science, programmers can find a way to get even elusive young, male viewers to tune in the old-fashioned way that results in Nielsen numbers and advertising dollars.
The renewed vitality of South Park is a rare bit of good news for Comedy Central, which has been reeling from the loss of its late-night murderer’s row of Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Samantha Bee and John Oliver. Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show, which replaced the Colbert Report in 2015, was canceled over the summer.
It is also a welcome relief for parent company Viacom, which has been in the news for a bruising boardroom battle for control of a company whose cable networks have been suffering from a combination of eroding ratings, lower revenue, downward earnings and record low stock prices.
Flexing Its Muscle
South Park’s performance was hardly an accident. At a time when media companies see scale as a salvation, Viacom used the marketing muscle of nearly all of its brands to promote the Sept. 14 season premiere, which tackled current event topics including football player Colin Kaepernick’ s National Anthem protest, J.J. Abrams’ reboots of popular films and the Presidential election. (The Trump vs. Hillary saga also boosted Saturday Night Live, which rose 31% when it premiered Oct. 1.)
“The success of the season 20 premiere was even beyond our very aggressive expectations. It was the highest-rated episode of the series since 2006, with 3.7 million total viewers on linear, 27% ahead of the season premiere just a year earlier,” said Walter Levitt, chief marketing officer for Comedy Central. With young men, it was the year’s biggest cable premiere, and on top of its TV viewing, it generated 2 million views via streaming.
“[This is] an environment where on linear television there are not many returning series that are growing, never mind in year two or year three but certainly in year 20,” Levitt added.
The show trended on Facebook and Twitter, with 80% of the comments being positive. The promotion boosted viewing of past episodes on Hulu, where it was one of the top two or three shows streamed so far this fall.
South Park’s success also boosted the premiere that night of the animated series Legends-of Chamberlain Heights, which became the highest-rated new series for Comedy Central since Broad City. And it gave a boost to The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, which was gaining momentum as election season heated up.
For the third quarter, Comedy Central’s primetime ratings were up 3% among adults 18-49. Ratings slipped 3% in September, but video streams were up 21%, illustrating the shift in viewer behavior that networks are combating.
Stream Come True
South Park was an early mover into streaming. In 2007 creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker formed a joint venture with Comedy Central that put all episodes online, splitting the revenue. This came at a time when Viacom was suing YouTube over streaming unauthorized clips of its shows.
Live viewing is especially key for advertisers. “It’s important. Immediate reach is what TV does best. It’s why, with all the challenges, advertisers are still flocking to TV,” said David Campanelli, director of national broadcast at Horizon Media.
Much as Comcast’s NBCUniversal takes advantage of its hugeness by harmonizing its businesses to back key initiatives with Symphony, Viacom has formed a marketing council—consisting of the marketing heads of all of it units—that gets together to collaborate on projects that represent corporate priorities.
“We are working in new ways across our portfolio in support of key programming priorities,” said Ross Martin, executive VP, marketing strategy and engagement for Viacom Media Networks and head of the marketing council. “Everything we do here is informed by the audience science we have.”
Before working on South Park, Viacom’s marketing council successfully gave TV Land’s Younger a push that resulted in strong ratings.
Viacom has been using its data-based marketing products such as Viacom Vantage to make its networks more attractive to advertisers.
Using similar techniques to boost ratings is smart, says media buyer Campanelli. “Viacom launched their Vantage product, which is an offering to their advertisers to help find more precise audiences across the Viacom properties. It would make sense for them to put that to use for themselves to promote their own show,” he said. “At Horizon we have a significant number of entertainment tune-in accounts. We utilize similar data methods to find where our desired audience is to drive the largest tune-in possible.”
Bind With Science
For South Park, a Peabody Award winner ranked as one of TV’s top shows all time, the plan was to re-energize and re-engage the show’s fan base, millions of whom are in Viacom’ s first-party data.
Viacom’s audience science group reached across 19 seasons worth of people who have interacted with South Park content. It also coordinated all of the data coming in from the social footprints of Comedy Central and South Park, which by itself has 45 million Facebook friends. Some of those fans watched when the show was new; others are newcomers to the franchise. “You can imagine the array of demos and ages in those 19 seasons,” Martin said.
Audience Science is able to guide, analyze and retarget marketing efforts across owned, paid and earned media.
“We’re getting feedback and data in real time across this organization on every platform, so we see what’s working and what’s not working,” Martin said. Lessons of what worked on the South Park launch will be incorporated by Viacom and its networks on future projects, he added.
The South Park campaign started with ComicCon last July, where Stone and Parker spoke on a panel. Outside the convention center, South Park also mounted an interactive exhibit that enabled fans to take pictures of themselves with scenes from their favorite episodes. That resulted in tens of thousands of photos being shared, and in hundreds of millions of social media impressions, according to Levitt.
Those fans are pretty much everywhere online. One concentrated pocket could be found, in of all places, among visitors to Entertainment Tonight’s website. Comedy Central did a number of site takeovers, and created filters for Snapchat. By using the Audience data, ComedyCentral was able to find fans wherever they were online, limiting the “spray and pray” nature of most marketing campaigns, Martin said.
GIF That Keeps on Giving
For fans, Viacom Labs, which looks for new technology partners to create and promote content, formed a unique partnership with the site Giphy, which set up an engine that could search every episode of South Park and turn favorite scenes into GIFs for use in social media.
“If there’s a moment that you loved or something going on in your life that you want a South Park reaction to, you can search the database at Giphy and you can find the moment and get it as a GIF instantly and share it,” said Martin.
South Park has also skewered numerous icons over its history, and Viacom mounted an outdoor campaign to capitalize on that. The company purchased mobile video billboards that went to those locations, displaying the show making fun of them. The trucks appeared at the Church of Scientology, the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Canadian border and Trump Tower.
Viacom’s marketing council also brought cool contributions from other networks. Spike created a cobranded vignette featuring a top contestant from the show Ink Masters creating a South Park tattoo for a fan; the tattoo video will run on cable and digital platforms in addition to Comedy Central platforms.