In case you didn’t know, the fantastically stupid SyFy movie Sharknado transformed much of Twitter into the social-media equivalent of Mystery Science Theater last night. I played my part. Today there’s an interesting chorus of finger-wagging from various quarters reveling in the fact that for all the hubbub on Twitter, the movie didn’t get very good ratings, even by SyFy movie standards. It got 1 million viewers as opposed to a SyFy movie average closer to 1.5 million. As David Weigel writes: “Twitter, as read by the pundit/journo class, is a skewed and friendly field of public opinion. What happens on there doesn’t necessarily happen anywhere else.”
I agree entirely, even though some of the evidence that Sharknado bombed is equivocal. I poked around IMDB briefly and it doesn’t seem like all that many of the other movies in the SyFy oeuvre debuted in mid-July, which is a very bad time for TV viewership generally. Comparing Sharknado’s ratings to the ratings of Shaktopus or Mansquito isn’t entirely fair. But fine, so be it, Sharknado did poorly.
I just think it’s a little weird that this is the cultural product Acela-corridor denizens highlight as proof that Washington and New York journalists are out of touch with real America. The fact of the matter is there is not much daylight between real America and the Beltway elite when it comes to Sharknado. Everyone agrees that it’s awful, even the people who haven’t seen it (the commercial alone is enough for even the most unsophisticated members of the hoi polloi to recognize how craptacular it is).
You could make a much stronger — and far more interesting — case by swapping out Sharknado and replacing it with, say, HBO’s Girls. The show’s season finale did far worse than Sharknado. Moreover, everyone agrees that Sharknado is utter and irredeemable crap. Girls meanwhile has become a cultural phenomenon of lasting power and influence. I shudder to think how much time has been spent, not just on Twitter, but in the pages of the New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and in the broadcasts of NPR on this even more obscure cultural fare. Shows like Newsroom and Bill Maher’s HBO show do better than Girls but not so much better that anyone should be bragging (I doubt Aaron Sorkin will ever say “we doubled Sharknado’s ratings!”).
Of course, these shows are on HBO, which limits their potential audience. But that cuts both ways. Because they are on pay cable, it only underscores their elite status. And yet when the Twitterati talk about Bill Maher’s execrable drek there’s little cackling about how out of touch participants in that conversation are from “real America.” Again, I don’t disagree with Ezra Klein when he writes “Sharknado is [a] particularly clear example of our short reach.” I just hope folks keep that in mind when raving about the cultural and political significance of shows advancing their side of an argument.