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When it comes to television events that score massive ratings, cable channel documentaries are not usually the first that come to mind. Discovery’s new documentary about the dangers facing already endangered species completely shattered that expectation, though, as Racing Extinction managed to draw in numbers to rank it as the most watched cable documentary film in more than three years.

Admittedly, “cable documentary film” is something of a niche category, but the Nielsen numbers for Racing Extinction really are staggering. The December 2 primetime premiere garnered more than 11.5 million total viewers in the United States alone. Encores over the weekend brought in another 6.6 million. International numbers are not yet available from all markets, but preliminary ratings show 6 million viewers from outside of the U.S.

Racing Extinction benefited from high-profile attention before it even had its premiere on Discovery. Celebrities, activists, and policy makers expressed interest ahead of time, which undoubtedly helped to boon the ratings for the premiere.

The documentary was a hit with more numbers than just those measured by Nielsen. It trended on mega social media platforms as well. The global campaign from Discovery on behalf of Racing Extinction that began back in November was particularly effective on Facebook, but Twitter and Instagram were taken by storm as well. The #StartWith1Thing hashtag caught fire, and Racing Extinction’s social media reach allowed it to touch corners of the consumer market that may not have otherwise given a second thought to a Discovery documentary. It’s impossible to say how the attention of Facebook and Twitter might correlate to the ratings, but it’s easy to say that they couldn’t have hurt the rerun numbers.

Of course, endangered species and threats of extinction are hot topics nowadays. Racing Extinction addressed issues that are globally relevant and that made it something well worth watching. Still, Discovery has been experimenting in all sorts of less global subject matter to try to reach viewers in recent years. Possibly best known for the popular Mythbusters series that is sadly coming to an end after just one more season, Discovery has dabbled in scripted series such as Klondike as well as more bizarre and difficult to categorize series such as Amish Mafia. Some ventures have been sillier than others, but Racing Extinction brought Discovery back to some of its exceptional documentary roots.

It should be interesting to see how the documentary fared internationally once the numbers from more overseas are in. We can be pretty sure that Discovery will make the most of the attention that it’s receiving for Racing Extinction, and we can certainly hope that this is just the first of many more high-caliber documentaries that trick us into learning while we’re being entertained.