How Brazilian Whovians influenced BBC's strategies through Twitter: Fifty years of Doctor Who and fan engagement

Eloy Santos Vieira

Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, São Leopoldo, Brazil

Lilian Cristina Monteiro França

Universidade Federal de Sergipe, São Cristóvão, Brazil

[0.1] Abstract—Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) is a remarkable example of how storytelling and marketing strategies can be assembled. Its fiftieth anniversary special was broadcast simultaneously in 2013 in ninety-three countries on TV (with a peak audience of 10.6 million on BBC One alone) and was also screened in more than 1,500 movie theaters after fan mobilization on Twitter. We show how this fan mobilization influenced the BBC's strategy to broadcast the special in Brazilian territory.

[0.2] Keywords—Fandom; Social media; Social TV

Vieira, Eloy Santos, and Lilian Cristina Monteiro França. 2018. "How Brazilian Whovians Influenced BBC's Strategies through Twitter: Fifty Years of Doctor Who and Fan Engagement." In "Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries," edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Doctor Who (1963–89, 1996, 2005–) is well known as the longest-running sci-fi TV show. Its first episode aired on the BBC on November 23, 1963. Although it went on hiatus in the 1990s, the show returned in 2005 and completed fifty years on the air in 2013. That was when the BBC planned an international celebration with an anniversary special episode that was supposed to appear not only on TV but also on movie screens all around the world.

[1.2] This anniversary special was planned not only as a celebration but also as a key episode in the ongoing narrative. Additionally, it was intended to meet the expectations of fans worldwide, which included us: Brazilian Whovians. Although the BBC first planned to show the special episode in only three cities in Brazil, they changed their plans after Brazilian Whovians mobilized on Twitter.

2. Fifty years of Doctor Who

[2.1] The title of the fiftieth anniversary special was "The Day of the Doctor." Most Whovians eagerly expected to see two incarnations of the Doctor together: the Tenth Doctor, played by David Tennant, and the Eleventh Doctor, played by Matt Smith. They also looked forward to seeing the new incarnation, the Twelfth Doctor, to be played by Peter Capaldi.

[2.2] The main plot of the seventy-five-minute episode is the last day of the Time War (a war between Time Lords and Daleks that exterminated both races). The War Doctor, played by John Hurt, explains how this war ended. He, the contemporary Doctor (played by Matt Smith), and his previous incarnation (played by David Tennant) meet, along with their respective companions, in order to save the Doctor's home planet, Gallifrey, from destruction.

[2.3] The special was shown in more than ninety countries and in fifteen languages in more than 1,500 movie theaters all over the globe, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Australia, Canada, Latin America, Germany, Russia, and Scandinavia:

[2.4] In the run up to the 50th Anniversary, fans of the show across the world have been out in full force to be part of a global event. In Sweden and Norway where the programme has no client broadcaster, fans successfully petitioned to get their local cinemas to screen the episode. Similarly, fans in Argentina pushed a major cinema chain into showing the special simultaneously. In the US, an initial 10,000 cinema tickets sold out in 28 minutes without any marketing or advertising and in Germany, Cinemaxx, one of the largest cinema chains reported that the special had been the fastest non-movie pre-sale in their history. (BBC Worldwide 2013)

[2.5] These impressive numbers earned BBC Worldwide a Guinness World Record for the largest audience ever reached by a TV drama. Additionally, with the simulcast of this episode, BBC One (2013a) drew a peak audience of 10.6 million. As well as the ticket sales and the TV audience numbers, other numbers are also remarkable: the number of fans interacting, expressing their expectations on social media, rejoicing together, and even striving to get their favorite show to air in their countries.

3. Strategies to promote the anniversary special

[3.1] The episode did not earn this massive audience by chance. The BBC knew that it would be one of the most anticipated productions in the show's run. One of the first strategies the corporation planned was the revelation of the Twelfth Doctor after Matt Smith announced his departure from the series (BBC One 2013b). Michelle Osborn, head of communications for BBC One and BBC Drama, explained that they had decided to produce a live event within one month of Smith's announcement (Lepitak 2013). She also said the announcement of a new Doctor should be a major event inside the narrative.

[3.2] On TV, the live event attracted a peak of almost seven million viewers, but the size of the internet audience really draws attention. The BBC's Doctor Who website crashed, and almost 90 percent of conversations on Twitter during the broadcast were about it. There were over eight hundred million tweets sent using the hashtags #doctorwho and #petercapaldi (Brew 2013). The BBC also used viral marketing techniques to promote the special on Twitter, using the hashtag #SaveTheDay (figure 1) to reveal promotional material.

Screenshot from YouTube video.

Figure 1. Screenshot of the end of a BBC One promotional YouTube video illustrating use of the hashtag #SaveTheDay and advertising the release date (23.11.13, with the "11" made to look the TARDIS doors opening) of the Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor." Source:

[3.3] After the BBC announced that Smith would be replaced, it returned to highlighting the anniversary and the first appearance of Capaldi. In order to promote the special, the BBC released two mini episodes. The first one, "The Night of the Doctor," was released on November 14 and starred Paul McGann as the Eighth Doctor, who regenerated into the War Doctor (played by John Hurt during the anniversary episode). Another mini episode, "The Last Day," was released on November 20 and offered the point of view of an anonymous soldier during the fall of Arcadia, the main battle of the Time War. Both mini episodes were available on the BBC's online iPlayer and its YouTube channel.

[3.4] Besides these mini episodes, the BBC also developed strategies to gather fans all around the world. On the BBC's Portuguese-language website, fans could register to receive emailed news and teasers about the anniversary. They could also indicate their location and any fan clubs they belonged to, and see the same information about others who had registered (figure 2).

Screenshot of Portuguese-language Doctor Who website with a map of Brazil; display text reads: Doctor Who Fans: Show who you are and join the Latin American Fans Community! Register here to receive the news about the Doctor and the 50th anniversary

Figure 2. Screenshot of the BBC's Portuguese-language website with a map of Brazil, with various colorful icons indicating locations and numbers of fans attending screenings of the 2013 Doctor Who fiftieth anniversary special, "The Day of the Doctor."

[3.5] As an example of the important role of social media in Brazil, Twitter was used by Brazilian Whovians to demand more movie theaters in smaller cities. The BBC and Cinemark took note of these demands and adjusted their strategies.

4. Brazilians fans get mobilized

[4.1] Although the BBC's strategies, such as the #SaveTheDay hashtag, may seem small, we must remember their importance. The hashtag attained world trending status on Twitter because it was mentioned six hundred thousand times by Whovians discussing the fiftieth anniversary special.

[4.2] The adoption of an official hashtag is common among Brazilians in social media. According to Canatta (2014), 70 percent of Brazilians search the Internet for information while watching TV about the show they are watching, and about 95 percent of online conversation about TV happens on Twitter. Rodrigues (2014) supplements these data with the results of her research about TV live events discussions on social media. Rodrigues suggests that there is a direct relation between the use of an official hashtag by the broadcasting companies during live events and their adoption by the audiences in social media.

[4.3] Brazilian Whovians followed these trends pointed out by Canatta (2014) and Rodrigues (2014) during the exhibition of the anniversary episode. When the BBC first announced the it, only São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Porto Alegre were supposed to host showings. After tickets sold out in these cities, Cinemark, the movie theater chain, announced that other large- and medium-size cities would also show it: Belo Horizonte, Barueri, Campinas, Curitiba, Goiânia, Niterói, Recife, Salvador, São Caetano do Sul, São José dos Campos, Santos, and Uberlândia.

[4.4] This announcement of additional cities spurred fans in other cities to complain on Twitter, wanting it to be shown in their regions as well. Using the hashtag #DoctorWhonaCMK (the hashtag is an acronym for "Doctor Who at Cinemark") and the official hashtag #SaveTheDay, Brazilian Whovians put pressure on BBC. This move was led by the founders of the websites Doctor Who Brasil and Universo Who, and according to them, they were contacted by a BBC producer (figure 3).

Screenshot of Twitter feed from @DoctorWhoBrasil dated November 4, 2013; English-language translation reads: NERDS FROM ALL OVER BRAZIL!!! Help us to make the Doctor Who anniversary be shown in more theaters! #DoctorWhonaCMK; .@tvcultura help the whovians rising the hashtag #DoctorWhonaCMK !! We count on your support! 〉3 〉3; Doctor Who is 50 years old and is part of brittish culture, what about your favorite show? #DoctorWhonaCMK; Bieber mistreats his fans, take him away from the Trending Topics, put #DoctorWhonaCMK instead !!; The Special An Adventure in Space and Time by @Markgatiss is about to be broadcasted on November 21st #DoctorWhonaCMK #takethetip #Imgonnacry #veritylambetgodess; Do not forget about using the hashtag #DoctorWhonaCMK! We want theater ALL OVER BRAZIL!; One Direction in the Trending Topics NOOOOO! We want other part of brittish culture on TT's!!!!! #DoctorWhonaCMK; Let's take Luan Santana away from the Trending Topics! #DoctorWhonaCMK; LET'S RISE THIS HASHTAG TO TRENDING TOPICS AGAIN WITH THEATERS ALL OVER BRAZIL!!!!!!!! #DoctorWhonaCMK

Figure 3. Screenshot of tweets from Twitter account @DoctorWhoBrasil dated November 4, 2013, indicating that the topic has made the Trending Topics list.

[4.5] Doctor Who Brasil coordinated its efforts with fans in other Latin American countries:

[4.6] Together with the BBC, we organized a campaign with Argentina and Mexico with the hashtag #MasSalasParaDoctorWho, in other to get more theaters in Latin America. We created the hashtags #DoctorWho50noCinemark and #WhoviansUnidos in order to get them into Trending Topics…The BBC and Cinemark had a meeting and the BBC showed our engagement, and then Cinemark finally launched a campaign on Twitter, asking fans to use the hashtag #DoctorWhonaCMK with the name of their city. (Auxílio 2013)

[4.7] Most of the initial mobilization was for more theaters. After the fans accomplished that, the new goal became more tickets. The protest hashtag #DoctorWhonaCMK faded and #SaveTheDay rose again, as a way to pressure BBC to offer more tickets in medium-size cities.

[4.8] After that, Cinemark released two official statements. In the first one, Vitória, Guarulhos, Londrina, Natal, Aracaju, and Manaus were added to the list of cities hosting showings. In the second one, Ribeirão Preto, Cuiabá, and Campo Grande were also added (Diniz 2013). In the end, twenty-four Brazilian cities showed the special simultaneously, some in more than one theater.

[4.9] After showing engagement through social media campaigns demanding additional showings and tickets, fan clubs also gathered at the movie theaters, to watch and celebrate the show's fiftieth anniversary. In Rio de Janeiro (Duarte 2013) and Belo Horizonte (Peixoto 2013), for example, fans organized events and attended in costume.

[4.10] According to Thaís (Aux) Auxílio (2013), leader and founder of Doctor Who Brasil, both BBC and Cinemark had contacted Brazilian fandom:

[4.11] In the specific case of the 50-year anniversary, they called us to warn about what should happen in Brazil, that it should take place in three movie theaters and that we were supposed to use the hashtag. In the end, a lot of people also posted it and it turned to be a great motto to a large mobilization on Twitter. When it reached Trending Topics, Cinemark got in touch. Finally, 33 movies screened the special. (our translation)

5. Conclusions

[5.1] If on the one hand companies are improving their strategies to maintain their audiences worldwide, on the other hand the audiences also develop strategies in order to be part of the media process, as we have seen in this case study of Brazilian Whovians who mobilized via Twitter during the 2013 fiftieth anniversary special. When these Whovians mobilized, they helped the company reach a peak audience, as cities hosting viewings were added and movie theaters staged larger exhibitions as a result of the protests.

[5.2] Now more than ever, digital distribution and the ability to produce and broadcast media products worldwide offer companies new challenges to deal with global markets (Vieira, Rocha, and França 2015). One of these challenges is how to keep up with global audience engagement with global media products.

[5.3] As broadcasters' strategies to keep their world audiences are becoming more sophisticated, fans have been playing more important roles in these processes. If Brazilian fandom had not mobilized, the Doctor Who anniversary special would never have reached such a large audience in the country; the BBC simply did not know how much demand there was for it. Collaboration between broadcasters and audiences is becoming essential to progress in the contemporary global media system.

6. References

Auxílio, Thaís (Aux). 2013. "#DoctorWhonaCMK: o dia em que fomos parar nos Trending Topics!" [(#DoctorWhoatCMK: The day we were on Trending Topics!]. Doctor Who Brasil, November 2, 2013.

BBC One. 2013a. "Doctor Who 50th Anniversary Draws a Peak Audience of 10.6 Million for BBC One." Doctor Who blog, November 25, 2013.

BBC One. 2013b. "Matt Smith Announces He Is to Leave Doctor Who—Updated." Doctor Who blog, June 1, 2013.

Brew, Simon. 2013. "BBC Releases Picture, Teaser Sting for The Day of the Doctor." Den of Geek, September 28, 2013.

Canatta, Fábio. 2014. "Tv e segunda tela: uma análise do horário nobre no Twitter" [TV and the second screen: An analysis of prime time on Twitter]. PhD diss., Pontifícia Universidade Católica do Rio Grande do Sul (PUCRS).

Diniz, Aline. 2013. "Doctor Who: Cinemark adiciona mais salas para exibição do especial de 50 anos" [Doctor Who: Cinemark provided more room to exhibit the 50-year special]. Omelete, November 14, 2013.

Duarte, Louise. 2013. "Fãs de Doctor Who de reúnem ao redor do mundo para assistir ao especial de 50 anos da série nos cinemas" [Doctor Who fans get together all over the world to watch the 50-year show's anniversary in cinemas]. Cinema Para Sempre, November 24, 2013.

Guenigault, Matt. 2013. "Guinness World Record for The Day of the Doctor." BBC Doctor Who, November 24, 2013.

Lepitak, Stephen. 2013. "How They Kept It Quiet—The BBC PR Strategy behind Peter Capaldi Being Named Doctor Who." The Drum, August 5, 2013.

Peixoto, Mariana. 2013. "Fãs da série Doctor Who se reuniram em BH para sessão comemorativa" [Doctor Who fans get together at belo horizonte for commemmorative session]. November 25, 2013.,148856/fas-da-serie-de-tv-doctor-who-se-reuniram-em-bh-para-sessao-comemorati.shtml .

Rodrigues, Usha M. 2014. "Social Media's Impact on Journalism: A Study of Media's Coverage of Anti-corruption Protests in India." Global Media Journal (Australian edition) 8 (1): 1–10.

Vieira, Eloy Santos, Irla Suellen da Costa Rocha, and Lilian Cristina Monteiro França. 2015. "A aproximação entre indústrias midiáticas e os fãs: o caso do DramaFever no Brasil" [The approximation between mediatic industries and the fans: The Case of DramaFever in Brazil]. Paper presented at the Thirty-Eighth Brazilian Congress of Communication Studies (Congresso Brasileiro de Ciências da Comunicação), Rio de Janeiro, September 4–7, 2015.