Chapter 5 – Out Of Nowhere Viral TV Hits

You can check out the other chapters of the series at

What is it about certain TV shows that just capture us? Why do some gain immense popularity while others are quickly canceled?  Entertaining and well-written content are table stakes but even shows that have both don’t always go viral. In this episode, we explore our social narratives to explore how and why fans connect with hits like Yellowstone, Squid Game, and Game of Thrones.


Assumption: A TV show will be successful with a combination of being well-written, critically acclaimed, entertaining, and with popular actors.


VERDICT: False. While some of those elements are table stakes, they do not ensure long-term success or launch a TV into viral status.


We have all experienced a TV show we loved that sucked in millions of viewers and became “Must See TV.” Shows like Yellowstone, Breaking Bad, Squid Game, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Office, Friends, and Downton Abbey have captivated audiences, sparked millions of conversations, and still garner undying loyalty well past their initial runs. For instance, fans of The Office still say, “Do you watch The Office?” in the present tense, even though the show ended in 2013.

Likewise, most of us have been loyal followers of a show that, for some reason, did not seem to gain a following and was prematurely canceled. Really good, award-winning shows like Arrested Development, Veronica Mars, Freaks & Geeks, Twin Peaks, and Enlightened were canceled earlier than expected due to low viewership. It can seem inexplicable to us and to production studios that are launching more content than ever, chasing the holy grail of viral status. Entertaining and well-written content is table stakes, but the ability to evolve or explode into an “out of nowhere” hit requires a deeper connection to consumer need states.

Let’s deep dive into Yellowstone as an example. It fits well because it’s not universally loved and can be quite polarizing, but is nonetheless extremely popular, even spawning several spinoffs.

If you haven’t been part of a conversation about that show, either positive or negative, you may have been in isolation for the past few years. But what made it so popular with audiences? Our social narratives exploration revealed two main elements:

#1: Yellowstone has something for everyone; it demonstrates broad appeal. Fans represent all points of view: liberal, conservative, and everything in between. Fans are just as likely to watch Fox & Friends as they are to watch The Daily Show. It’s just an enjoyable show that doesn’t overtly press anyone’s political agenda. Fans have an appetite for shows that don’t shy away from violence or conflict, have good acting, enjoyable characters, and compelling storylines. It gives common ground to chat about, and there is a sense of FOMO if you don’t jump on the bandwagon.

  • It’s doing well because it is a show aimed at adults and telling a good story with compelling characters. It’s not constantly trying to pander to 1% of the audience out there by being woke.
  • People want to hate Yellowstone because it’s popular or “not real ranching”, but I encourage everyone to watch Yellowstone because it highlights very REAL issues plaguing American Ranches and Native Americans today. Any exposure is good exposure. A RANT!
  • Yellowstone is an amazing rendition of cowboy mafia. Like The Sopranos so I’ve heard. But I do like the show.
  • My parents and their friends love Yellowstone. It’s such a mom show.

 #2: Yellowstone offers relatable, charismatic, complex and intriguing characters, and a fantastic escape. Viewers feel connected to Yellowstone but may perceive storylines differently based on personal views. The show offers suspense, drama, violence, intriguing relationships, personal conflict, and a storyline that may feel familiar due to culturally relevant subtexts. Some claim to be exhausted with unrealistic events and the abundance of deaths; however, they continue to tune in and discuss this guilty pleasure. During the pandemic and current polarizing political climate, the show offers an escape as well as an easy way to connect with others.

  • Caved and started watching Yellowstone. The show takes itself SO seriously but I appreciate that every line of dialogue moves the plot. Beth is manipulative and unlikeable, Kayce > Rip, and Jamie is intolerable. Opinions subject to change.
  • Don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying the shit out of it. Beth Dutton is a frontrunner in the third wife sweepstakes. I’ll fight Rip for her if I have to.
  • @Yellowstone Fantastic acting/writing! Love this show and the chemistry between actors / actresses shines!
  • I would agree about Kevin Costner he’s a very good actor. He’s very well established and it’s his name that attracted so many people to even watching Yellowstone in the first place. You would think that Kevin Costner would have spoken up about the lack of quality in the scripts.
  • LOVE YELLOWSTONE” perfect cast. Kevin is Alpha, Kelly is a evil abused adult child, Cole is the attack dog, who makes everything straight forward, Luke is learning to be the Alpha, & Kelsey link to Native Americans.

There were so many discussions and comments on the individual cast members that it’s almost overwhelming to mention them all. It proves that you can have good writing but if you don’t have the actors and actresses to connect with audiences, the show doesn’t work. You need both.

What is it that drives that connection? We as humans are always looking for connection and we find it with not only other humans but with fictional characters (such as the characters from Yellowstone but also countless other TV shows and movies) and even brands. That drive for connection feeds several consumer need states. Based on the social narratives work we’ve done on this topic at Quester, combined with the research done over the past decade on need states, we’ve developed a hypothetical model of consumer need states that may shed light on how “out of nowhere” hits happen.

Self Care – Enjoyable Relaxation

Especially in the current climate, people are looking to completely relax, disconnect from cares, and reduce anxiety. Escaping by going to a place that doesn’t dwell in everyday reality provides a way to unwind. Compelling, suspenseful stories set in an area that is familiar (but different enough) let viewers indulge in fantasies associated with the Wild West. There’s no overt political agenda, which aids in enjoyment of the story and allows them to look through their own lenses to see what they want to see.

Relevance – Tapping Into Cultural Norms

A cultural perspective that reflects some uniquely American values feels familiar, even if they aren’t values to which people personally ascribe. Freedom, power, guns, violence, home/family, exploring and settling the Wild West – these uniquely American themes appeal consciously and subconsciously to Yellowstone fans. Although shows like Squid Game and Game of Thrones are vastly different in content, other American cultural norms and values like risk-taking, rags to riches, democracy, Darwinism, oppression, conspiracy, haves and have-nots, bootstrapping, and the connection between sex and violence underpin these shows. All three shows tap into the Zeitgeist of current times and reflect uniquely American cultural values.

Belonging – Connection To My Tribe

It’s connecting to a community of like-minded people – the modern-day “water cooler.” Viewers seek to find commonality through entertainment to belong to a group or “tribe.” Anticipation of season finales, relationships (like Beth and Rip), wondering who will die next, and the fate of the Dutton ranch / land provide reasons to connect with others on safe ground, free from current realities of the world.

Leadership – Early Adopters/Risk Takers

There is power and pride in being “first in the know” and encouraging others to join the bandwagon. Small core groups that are early subject matter and/or cast member fans are the spark that can spur others to take interest. Those who grew up watching Westerns, Taylor Sheridan fans, Kevin Costner fans, gun owners, and those who feel they have been left behind by current political trends (like wokeness) were some of the early adopters and core fans.

More to it than you thought? That’s ok, just kick back and enjoy your favorite shows!


Quester’s series “Assume and Doom,” presents some prevalent assumptions, then brings clarity to them using our intuitive and informative ability to dig into social narratives to see what consumers are saying about these issues. So many times, people on all levels within a company hear about trends and buzzwords or read one article about a topic and make assumptions based on limited information. They then sometimes make knee-jerk decisions that do not help their business. We’re here to bring clarity to current issues so companies don’t fall prey to the “Assume and Doom.”

While most social listening/analytics quantifies large ideas and metrics, Quester social narratives go underneath the numbers to explain consumer behaviors, emotions, and motivations.  We focus on the deep “why,” offering insight into implications, directions, and whitespaces. Because all consumer decisions are influenced by narratives—what they hear, read, watch, and discuss; social listening or analytics may not fully explain, analyze, or break down how these narratives affect consumer behavior.

While sometimes these assumptions will be an easy “true” or “false,” in most cases, as is common with human behavior, we’re predicting there will be a lot of nuances. Issues like these generally are not black-and-white.

The quotes you see in these articles are pulled from the various social platforms from which we analyzed the narratives and are representative of many thousands of discussions about the themes, not as “one-off” quotes from a qualitative study.


  • Brett Townsend

    As SVP of Strategy, Brett is future-focused by offering clients consulting about Brand and Innovation Strategy, always focused on building muscular brands and organic growth.

    Brett is always quick to drop a movie or TV quote, a historical anecdote, or music lyrics to any situation. He’s happy to give you travel or eating tips to many domestic and global destinations, as well as advice on being a girl dad.

    As a client of Quester for over 10 years before joining the team, Brett’s favorite thing about Quester is our desire to never settle, we’re always looking for better ways to solve problems, and to offer our clients the art and science that tells story behind the story—because human behavior is rarely linear and can’t be explained with data points.

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