Television changed forever on October 11, 1975, when John Belushi said the words “I would like to feed your fingertips to the wolverines.” It was the first sketch of the first episode of NBC’s late-night comedy series Saturday Night Live, and audiences had never seen anything like it.
After nearly 41 years, SNL continues breaking new ground with its mix of topical humor, celebrity hosts and memorable musical acts.
Since the show often makes news during election years, we ranked the first 15 episodes of the current season to determine which hosts generated the most engagement on social media. We explored the data during the week before each episode, as well as the Sunday immediately following it.
From September 28, 2015, to March 13, 2016, SNL generated 19.6 million total social actions (likes, comments, shares and retweets) on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. That engagement was split mostly between Facebook (49%) and Instagram (44%)
Dennis Perkins, writer for the pop-culture site The A.V. Club, and Joe Berkowitz, writer and editor at Fast Company, joined us to discuss which SNL hosts were most (and least) successful on social media.
Adam Driver, who hosted the show less than a month after the premiere of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” claimed the top spot with almost 1.9 million social actions. Driver starred in the most-engaged SNL post of the season, a parody of “Undercover Boss,” featuring the actor reprising the role of Kylo Ren. The post generated nearly 1.2 million actions and 39 million views.
According to Dennis Perkins, this isn’t a surprise. “From the very beginning, SNL's short films have been an important part of the show,” Perkins said. “They’ve always been very popular.”
That popularity exploded in 2005 when a comedy trio known as The Lonely Island joined SNL.
“It was The Lonely Island that made everyone realize how powerful videos could be online,” Perkins said. “Their work was a massive viral sensation, and their “Lazy Sunday” video is basically what started YouTube.”
SNL drove engagement this season with video content, where actions increased 256% compared with the same period time last season. Videos made up approximately one-third (34%) of the content created by SNL, and accounted for nearly half (49%) of all social engagement.
Guest host Melissa McCarthy grabbed the No. 2 spot, thanks to SNL’s second most-engaged post of the season which aired during her episode. The video, another SNL short, “The Day Beyoncé Turned Black” generated nearly 936,000 actions and 31 million views.
“The newsworthiness of the Beyoncé video, which was pegged to her Super Bowl performance, makes people much more likely to share it,” Perkins said. “Everyone piggybacks on the issue, and it brings in new viewers apart from the typical SNL audience.”
The episode hosted by MMA superstar Ronda Rousey came third, with SNL generating its highest Twitter and Instagram engagement during her week. Adding to the social buzz was the return of Tina Fey’s portrayal of Sarah Palin. Throughout the season, posts featuring Fey as Palin were two of SNL's 10 most-engaged Facebook posts.
“Fey’s appearance as Sarah Palin accounts for a lot of the social engagement,” Perkins said. “Palin had just endorsed Trump earlier that week, and Fey’s impersonation of her was one of the biggest things to happen in the history of Saturday Night Live.”
Perhaps the biggest surprise our data showed was how low Donald Trump’s controversial episode scored on social. Out of 15 episodes, Trump’s ranked No. 14 and sketches he appeared in weren’t among SNL’s top social content.
“A lot of SNL's core audience consists of the kind of people who find Donald Trump repugnant,” said Berkowitz. “They were upset that he was given this platform, and they chose to either boycott the show or quietly watch with the hopes of catching a train-wreck.”
With the presidential election making news almost daily, it makes perfect sense why seven of SNL’s 10 most-engaged Facebook posts were political videos. These include the SNL shorts “Racists for Trump” commercial and Larry David's “Bern Your Enthusiasm.” Will Ferrell's return as President George W. Bush also ranked among the Top 10.
“The Racists for Trump video was pretty much the boldest of the season,” Perkins said. “It was retweeted by people who hate Trump, people who just thought it was funny, and by people who were really angry about it. Everyone shared it for different reasons, using different hashtags.”
SNL’s Twitter and Instagram Strategy
Twitter generated the least engagement for SNL at 7% but accounted for the most content (46%). It's used to announce hosts and musical guests, similar to tune-in messaging we've seen from broadcast TV shows.
To generate engagement, SNL uses host-specific hashtags on Twitter. Its #ArianaOnSNL hashtag, for example, generated 124% more engagement than the average SNL tweet this season. Tweets with the hashtag #WelcomeBackTracy, in honor of the return of former cast member Tracy Morgan following his devastating auto accident, generated 42% more engagement than the average SNL tweet this season.
Instagram is the most varied platform, used to promote upcoming episodes, post clips from the current season, holiday messages or holiday show reminders, often invoking nostalgia with video clips or photos from sketches aired during past seasons.
But SNL mostly uses Instagram to take its audience behind the scenes with the hashtag #SNLBackstage. The hashtag was used in 38% of all SNL Instagram posts.
A photo posted by Saturday Night Live - SNL (@nbcsnl) on
Matthew Chernov is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles. Follow him @MatthewChernov.
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