Doctor Who’s 50th anniversary broke ratings records by enlisting the internet

For fans of a madman in a blue box, last Saturday was pretty epic. Doctor Who, perhaps the iconic British science fiction series of the last century, celebrated its 50th birthday with a special anniversary episode that was shown simultaneously around the world on TV and in movie theaters.

Add a live simulcast pre-and post-show event that unfolded online and on TV, as well as a massive social media campaign, and you got record-breaking television ratings around the world, including 2.4 million viewers on BBC America (which increased to 3.6 million following an encore screening later in the day).

All of that didn’t happen just by virtue of the show’s history — it was a clever combination of multiple platforms to create a truly global event. Here’s how it was done:

The actual premiere

The aniversary episode, titled “The Day of the Doctor,” featured current series star Matt Smith as well as the returning David Tennant and legendary actor John Hurt, plus additional cameos and in-jokes for long-time fans. Its initial airing took place at 7:50 PM GMT — and 2:50 PM ET, and 11:50 AM PT, and so on around the planet in over 75 countries.

(For a series that initially had a year-long delay between the British airing and American premiere, this is an impressive evolution, to say the least.)

This wasn’t the BBC’s first global simulcast: In August, a half-hour special devoted to revealing the next actor to play the Doctor aired in a similar fashion.

But “Day of the Doctor” was also screened at the same time in 3-D in theaters around the world — selling out in in over 400 theaters, helping set a Guinness World Record for largest simulcast of a television drama, and beating The Hunger Games: Catching Fire in theater per-screen averages.

And while theater-goers had to buy tickets, those willing to settle for the 2-D at-home experience were able to watch the initial premiere without commercial interruptions, as BBC programming is ad-free due to the BBC’s status as a public trust.

BBC America programming does typically include commercials, so not only did the episode’s initial premiere feature some heavy pre-and-post show branding from sponsor AT&T, (s T) “Day of the Doctor” was then re-aired later in the day with ads — ads interspersed with behind-the-scenes content from the episodes, as an incentive for fans who might want to rewatch.

The pre/post-show

BBC America, in partnership with Nerdist Industries, pulled off what may be a first: A pre-premiere countdown and post-premiere discussion, hosted from YouTube (s GOOG) Space LA by Revision3 veteran Veronica Belmont.

Here’s what makes it special: In a rare moment of pure web video/television synergy, the pre-show and post-show were not only broadcast live on BBC America, but streamed live on YouTube simultaneously and globally (even in the U.S.), so that a fan in Chad could experience the same countdown to the episode as a fan in the United States.

The simulcast, in which Belmont chatted with YouTuber Phil Defranco, Mythbusters star Grant Imahara and L.A. Times writer Noelene Clark, featured a heavy emphasis on what Who fans were sharing on social media, as well as some pre-taped video featuring interviews with Smith and Tennant.

The archived video of the pre-show is currently at over 12,000 views, but some breakout clips, including Smith and Tennant attempting to perform lines from American films, have racked up far more.


Last not least, social media

The idea that people will Twitter about event television is hardly news at this point — though impressively, according to a UK tracking service, the episode broke major records there, racking up hundreds of thousands of Tweets across multiple hashtags.

But where Doctor Who really has a voice in the social media world is on Tumblr. The account, which is tied to BBC America, isn’t just a place for officially-released content — it actively engages with Who fan culture, sharing posts from fans around the globe. There are even official tags devoted entirely to fan art and fan vids.

And that approach is working — the account recently hit 450,000 followers, and on Saturday, as its staff live-blogged “Day of the Doctor” with animated GIFs and other notes, it reportedly racked up over 250,000 notes in just one hour.

When the account hit 100,000 followers in May 2012, the account posted a GIF-filled celebration to thank its fans, including the following note:

…We’re *your* official blog. The Doctor Who Tumblr is the show as seen through your eyes…It’s every character and every story and every relationship and everyone who’s involved in this show that makes this thing the thing that it is… And that’s why we’ve always said that the Doctor Who Tumblr is your tumblr. These are your posts and these are your 100,000 followers.

What are the lessons here? It’s not just about having a brand, even a brand with 50 years of legacy behind it. It’s about making something as available as possible to as many people as possible — and making those people not just into fans, but into active participants in the experience. Because that’s when you know they really care.