In the beginning, there was Sundance. Then came other festivals, the waves of positive reviews, SeaWorld’s pushback, and a $2 million–plus gross during the theatrical release of the anti-captivity documentary Blackfish.
Then came CNN.
CNN Films raised eyebrows in January 2013 when it picked up director Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s film at Sundance, in a well-crafted deal with Magnolia Pictures, which handled U.S. theatrical distribution over the summer, leaving the October 24 television premiere in CNN’s hands.
Many saw the move as part of an unfolding battle between two corporate titans: Time Warner Inc., which owns CNN, was clearly unafraid to take on the Blackstone Group, the private-equity powerhouse that bought SeaWorld in 2010.
CNN has now aired Blackfish about a dozen times and will air it again in early 2014.
Before the film aired, expectations were high about audience numbers and overall public reaction. But nobody forecast the wave of viewers who actually tuned in, especially young people, and the storm of fury against orca captivity that was unleashed among them.
Viewership and social media figures breached all predictions, which were based on the apparently false belief that people outside cetacean activist circles wouldn’t watch Blackfish in such massive numbers.
In the week leading up to the event, the network ran a weighty series of stories on the killer whale controversy and immediately followed the premiere with a special edition of AC360. The show featured Cowperthwaite and Dr. Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute, both on the anti-captivity side, and Jack Hanna and Bill Hurley of the Georgia Aquarium on the other.
During the entire evening, the network ran a red-hot “Live Blog” featuring tweets from the filmmakers, cast members, scientists, celebrities, CNN correspondents, and other journalists, along with comments and posts from viewers around the world.
The numbers were lofty for both the premiere and the live blogging, and they suggest a worrisome trend developing for SeaWorld: Blackfish was highly popular among millennials, or young people 18–34, many of whom are or soon will be making family-vacation decisions themselves.
“The CNN release accompanied by the Twitter storm allowed us to experience everyone’s gut responses,” says Cowperthwaite. “I saw firsthand how the film resonated with people, especially younger people. I never imagined we’d get such a young demo.”
She says that millennials are “hungry and passionate” in a way she hadn’t expected. “It’s so clear to me that they’re going to be the ones to change things,” she says. “I think of them as the ‘I can’t believe we used to do that’ generation.”
According to Nielsen Fast National data, among the youngest viewers ages 18–34, CNN wiped out the competition, with 471,000 people in this group tuning in, more than eight times the combined number for Fox (31,000) and MSNBC (25,000).
The premiere was the No. 1 program in cable news the night of October 24 (9–11 p.m.), averaging 472,000 viewers in the “key-demo adults 25–54” rating. By comparison, Fox News Channel averaged 331,000 during the same period, and MSNBC just 235,000, according to a CNN press release.
Online and mobile activity was also robust. “Blackfish ranked #1 in page views among all CNN films this year,” according to the press release.
The film “resonated across CNN social media platforms, with most expressing anger at SeaWorld for its part in profiting on the cruelty against orcas,” Ariel Allen, a programming and news specialist for the network, wrote in an internal memo that CNN shared with TakePart. “AC360 panel guest, Jack Hanna, was heavily criticized for his comments supporting SeaWorld. Most remarked that they no longer respected the well-known zookeeper, and noted that his motivations were centered on monetary gain.” Hanna did not respond to an email seeking comment.
Viewer feedback on CNN comment boards ran the gamut—from one expressing outrage at SeaWorld to one suggesting alternative orca-viewing experiences.
“I just went to SeaWorld and I will never go again,” wrote one enraged viewer. “The higher ups at SeaWorld disgust me, blaming the trainers in these incidents.”
“It is CHEAPER to take your kids on a whale watching cruise…to say nothing of the moral question of torturing these highly evolved mammals!” wrote another.
Cowperthwaite says she was “stunned” and “humbled” by the entire enterprise. “CNN openly encouraged debate from both sides,” she says. “They were committed to tackling this controversial issue. I think they’ve set a precedent.”