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Tiger King is a viral success because Netflix rules the jungle

The first viral show during the world’s lockdown period

Courtesy of NETFLIX

Even if people haven’t seen Tiger King, Eric Goode’s seven-part documentary series about private zoo owners with an affinity for large cats (lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, and cougars to name a few), they’ve probably heard of it. Tiger King is unavoidable. It’s trending on TikTok, memes are all over Facebook and Twitter, and it’s sat in Netflix’s Top 10 spot — in the United States, Canada, Britain, and more countries around the world — for more than a week. Not even Ozark could dethrone it.

Tiger King is so inherently buck wild that even if everything in the world these last few weeks was normal, it would likely find an audience. Now people are forced to stay indoors, turning to streamers like Netflix for constant entertainment day and night. Between March 9th and March 23rd, viewing on streaming services between 10AM and 5PM increased nearly 40 percent, according to a new report from streaming analyst firm Conviva that was shared with The Verge. Everyone from Netflix to Disney Plus and HBO Now is clocking streaming highs, with global streaming growing 20 percent in the same time, but Netflix is one of the only global options.

Television, when executed properly, can do more than just entertain. It can provide an escape for people trying to forget reality, and it can create a sense of community. Much of the time, that community is borne out of live TV. Sports games, competition reality shows, or season finales lead to people coming together on Twitter or Facebook to watch together. Even if watching TV is an isolated activity, people can feel like they’re a part of something because everyone is watching at the same time.

That’s disappeared. Every single sports league is suspended; late-night TV programming has primarily moved to YouTube; and season finales have been postponed because production units around the world shut down. The only live TV available to people is the news, and that doesn’t provide any escapism. Netflix was never invested in live TV. Executives have reiterated they don’t want to be in that space. Tiger King, with its instant meme-making moments and its availability to more than 167 million subscribers, gives Netflix an advantage in a world where live TV has all but diminished.

Tiger King isn’t comfort TV, but it does create a feeling of being part of a moment — something that people might be looking for more of lately as isolation continues. It’s popular enough, and bizarre enough, that memes about the show traveled nearly instantaneously. Tiger King’s success continues off Netflix, on platforms like TikTok and Twitter where people can participate in the meme. Like Game of Thrones, Tiger King seems like it’s managed to unite people online at a time when that’s the only way for them to come together.

Netflix is also one of the only global streamers releasing a stream of new content. While people are also spending time at home revisiting old classics like The Office and Grey’s Anatomy, according to Nielsen, there’s a hunger for something new to watch. Disney Plus doesn’t have many new shows for people to sink their teeth into, and HBO Now releases shows once a week. Tiger King is seven episodes of pure, chaotic fun. Having something new to watch, especially on a streamer that many people might consider a primary platform, feels like a luxury.

It’s abundantly clear from chatter on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok that Tiger King is the first viral TV show during this lockdown period. It won’t last. In order for Netflix to remain the streamer that everyone uses while stuck at home, it needs other shows to try to replicate the success that Tiger King found — to be the one show that everyone is talking about. It seems like a nearly impossible task. Tiger King could have ended up on another streaming service — a Hulu or HBO Now exclusive — but it’s unlikely to have become the sensation that it is without Netflix.