Trickle-down economics of new Charlie Sheen

Do you remember where you were on that fateful Saturday night, March 5th, 2011, at 10PM Eastern, 7pm Pacific? I remember – I just brought in a take out order of dry wings, calamari rings and was getting ice-cold beer from the fridge. The house was quiet, and my wife and I got comfortable in front of … the computer monitor and tuned in to … Charlie Sheen’s streamcast. We knew history was in the making.

Well, not really history – Sheen is not the first celebrity to make an ass of himself in public (and media), and try to turn to web (just Google search other recent news items on Mel Gibson, Lindsey Lohan and Ricky Gervais) to redeem. He’s also not the first one to embrace the web world so quickly and openly (look up Kevin Smith and Marc Maron). No, Charlie skipped the apology tour, and went straight to money-making business mode. Say what you will about his atrocious CBS show, or poor taste in hats – the man knows how to bring it all to the bottom line. In a span of a week, he opened a Twitter account (got to 930k followers in a period of 24 hours – definitely a record), then suddenly, started tweeting early Saturday about his upcoming streamcast. It took about a dozen tweets in a span of 4-6 hours (by that time, his account was followed by 1.8 million people. And so by 10pm, I decided to tune in. We all love watching a good trainwreck, and I’m no different. Hoping for substance, but anticipating a meltdown – live on the webs – I started watching the stream.

Guess what – not as atrocious as I expected. In fact, given the little show prep (and, man, did it show), and the high-school quality of sound/light/script/pace – it was still an interesting, insightful broadcast. Here it is, in numbers, so you can start your analysis: with 1.8 million twitter followers, at the start of the Saturday show, his Ustream channel had 110k viewers. It actually topped up at 116k, but that was about 15 minutes in (quarter of the show). When it ended, about an hour later, the viewership was 86k. Not bad – about 6.5% of your total web audience tuned in, less than a day of promotions (which of course, cost you nothing – those 10 or so tweets took less than 5 minutes to compose, and it really doesn’t matter who made them – Charlie himself, or his PR company’s account manager’s assistant – it’s semantics – think of actual cost/time). Out of those 6.5%, about 25% viewership dropped. You think it’s peanuts? TV networks, radio show producers, movie studios would kill for those rates. How many shows did you see axed when they lost 30-40 percent of their viewership in just 2 episodes? That’s millions of development and advertising dollars down the drain. Charlie’s team hit better retention rates with a single twitter account and (a lot of) help from (social) media. And, he’s been fearless about this – not afraid to be called names, not holding back anything that can (and will) be used against him). He also went through 3 cigarettes during the show, but that’s another story, for another blog.

And, he didn’t do this pomotion alone. Sheen fever hit the webs early in the week, and everyone was in on it. Roger Ebert was mentioning him, Jay Mohr was #winning, Piers Morgan, Toronto International Film Festival and Opie and Anthony show were name-dropping his profile and hashtags – and these are just the people on my ‘arts and entertainment‘ twitter list, which is about 30 people strong. A fraction of web universe. All these mentions, all this exposure, of course people tuned in. By mid-Saturday, both Mashable and Endgadget were tweeting about the upcoming broadcast. Why? Nevermind that. And what did they see when the streamcast started? A couple of plugs. Exactly what a good radio host would do. You start with the advertisers, mention them, give them proper attention, get some of the 116k viewers to visit their site. And I’m sure some of them did. So Charlie did earn the paycheck from those sponsors, and they did get the exposure. In the first few minutes.

You know what else was amazing about that streamcast? With 116k people watching, and up to 3500 people logged in to comment through twitter, there was a lot of plugging, self-promotion, and URL-throwing around. We’re no longer a passive mass of viewers, we participate, we engage with both the show (he did take some phone calls and read tweets live), we also engage with other viewers. And when 3500 people are chatting live in a single virtual room, many connections are made, some – personal, others – commercial. Yes, the show was a trainwreck, and yes, streamcasts, mass online chats are nothing new – but the speed, and the sheer size of this snowball – that is damn impressive.

There were even house-parties last night, friends getting together, huddled around a laptop to watch it (above photo courtesy of Megan Siegel). And if that’s not trickle-down economics of the Virtual Charlie Sheen Experience, I don’t know what is. The man is a star of the biggest sitcom on TV (no matter what quality it is) – do you think his entry into web world (as childish is it may seem) is not going to make waves (and generate money)? I suspect a few people in CBS headquarters are biting their nails right now.

Sheen’s team didn’t discover anything new – the technology has been here a while. They only proved an old axiom – he who has the biggest megaphone – wins. Regardless of its content. Meanwhile, there are good entertainers out there, who are trying to carve out a living, doing the same thing on their own, streaming, podcasting, maybe even charging a buck or two for it – their following is much smaller – so they must be green with envy with the above numbers. Marc Maron’s WFTPOD, Ira Glass’ This American Life, Anthony Cumia (from Opie and Anthony show) actually did a simulcast last night to capitalize on the traffic. But that’s only possible if you have enough resources to put together something like that in a couple of hours. I’m sure it lifted his numbers and got him even more followers. Yes, Charlie’s web show was a huge snowball, but now that it rushed past us, we either go down and do the cleanup, or keep climbing up. I’m looking for more analytics on that show, and will try to catch it next week – really curious to see the retention rates, and # of new plugs. It’s an old formula (you only need a handful of sponsors to support the entire show budget), but I want to see this in big enough numbers for the tv/film/radio industry to notice.

Perhaps they will finally realize, that apples to apples, there’s no point in fighting or resisting the web. Just migrate over and keep doing the same thing with new technologies. The advertisers (and audience) are already on the web.

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