More people are checking out Tina Fey's Sarah Palin impersonations Saturday night later than Saturday night live.
Fey's dead-on take of the Republican vice presidential candidate is not just the pop-culture event of the campaign season. It is a landmark in how people watch television, a peek into the future of a new media world.
Only one-third of the people who have seen at least one of the skits watched it first live on "Saturday Night Live." More people have checked them out online or, to a lesser extent, watched later on a digital video recorder or through video on demand, according to Integrated Media Measurement Inc., a research firm that measures media exposure through a person's mobile phone.
The company has never seen anything expand its reach beyond the first-run broadcast quite to this extent.
"I don't know if we would have seen this sort of viral activity a year ago, if people didn't think of their computer as a place to turn to for video entertainment," said Amanda Welsh, IMMI's head of research. "I really believe that we are seeing a change in consumer behavior on a very profound level."
Rather than jealously guard Fey's skits for live TV, NBC has actively encouraged the activity.
There were 10.2 million people watching the season-opening "Saturday Night Live" when Fey first appeared as Palin, with Amy Poehler portraying Hillary Clinton, according to Nielsen Media Research. These days, that's a good-sized audience for prime-time, let alone late-night, TV.
Another 1.2 million people captured the episode on their DVRs and watched within the week. Through the middle of last week, NBC estimated that it had streamed the skit online more than 13 million times. Those are just the numbers NBC can keep track of; the skit was undoubtedly captured and posted or e-mailed many more times.
NBC perfected "widget" technology only a few months ago, allowing video of its material to be captured across the Internet while retaining a tie to the network's Web site. It has aggressively marketed the Fey skits to political and comedy blogs. Her skits are posted on NBC's Web site almost immediately after they air on the East Coast — a fan in California can see them online before it's on TV. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture between NBC and Microsoft.)
The idea is to create buzz; if people see the clips online they might find them funny and tune in to "Saturday Night Live" regularly, said Vivi Zigler, president of NBC Universal digital entertainment, owned by the General Electric Co. Lapsed viewers might return, or even people who have never seen the show might watch, she said.
The danger to this approach is that more viewers might decide not to watch "Saturday Night Live" on Saturday night, and advertising revenue could suffer. So far the opposite is true: The show's audience for its first three episodes is 49 percent higher than last year's.
The experts expect that pattern to continue.
"The more platforms you make available to consumers, the more consumers you capture," Welsh said.
There's also the chance for even more revenue. Only in the past few weeks has NBC Universal perfected the technology to place a movie studio advertisement at the end of the clip it distributes online. Pre-clip advertising would add even more value.
It's not the only sign this fall of how the typical habits of watching TV — making an appointment with your easy chair at a given time each night — are rapidly becoming obsolete.
The "CBS Evening News" saw only a modest bump in ratings during Katie Couric's interview segments with Sarah Palin this fall. Yet they became so well known that "Saturday Night Live" based one of its Fey skits on Palin's bewildering answers. CBS News' Web site had significantly more traffic than normal at the time, with Couric's interview one of the most popular features. The network wouldn't give out specific numbers.
HBO's "True Blood," based on the Sookie Stackhouse book series, has become a hit quietly this fall, in large part because only 23 percent of the show's regular viewers watch each episode when it first appears on Sunday night.
With the Fey-Palin skits, NBC hit upon the perfect combination to promote its time-shifting, Zigler said. The "Saturday Night Live" writers came up with sharp material at a time the public is fascinated about politics, right when NBC perfected technology to spread the material online while protecting its rights to it.
Word of mouth made a big difference. Viewing of the "Saturday Night Live" skits is almost equally divided between Republicans and Democrats, Welsh said.
Consumers are in the midst of a behavioral change where they are increasingly looking to the computer for video, she said. The computer is shaping up as a more popular choice than DVRs, Welsh said.
"It is a tipping point for entertainment companies," Zigler said. "It is exactly what we expected would happen."