A Good Baby Step Towards Accurate TV Ratings
It probably won’t come as a surprise to many that I’m a nerd. It’s tough to work in SEO and not be a little geeky; I highly doubt that you’ll find the typical football jock seriously considering the factors which go into your average Google search. My boss (fearless leader Dave) interviewed me in an office that was literally plastered with Star Trek posters and Jedi figurines. We celebrate May the 4th as a serious office holiday.
So what I’m trying to say is that I’ve been a fan of many quirky, nerdy, off-beat television shows over the years, and I’ve had my heart broken many a time by the callous treatment that such shows receive from their parent networks. Firefly, Futurama, Pushing Daisies, Arrested Development — all of these shows had absolutely brilliant potential, were often critical darlings, and were sometimes the best thing on TV, but all of them met their end far too soon. But what some people may not know is that watching a beloved show on network TV doesn’t actually count towards the ratings unless they are a part of the Nielsen Family audience measurement system, which has been the dominant market analysis company since before the invention of television itself.
Nielsen ratings are currently acquired through two avenues: viewer diaries kept by a target audience (always in the US), and small devices called Set Meters that are attached to a family’s television to gather viewing habits every night. If you don’t have a Set Meter in your home, then you’re not contributing to the ratings data. This truth can be a frustrating experience for fans of cult TV shows; despite a vocal following, the numbers often don’t correlate to the love. The Nielsen system has been criticized as both statistically flawed and hopelessly out of date; not only do the sample sizes fail to reflect the actual TV-watching population accurately, but the Nielsen system has overwhelmingly failed to account for the increasing number of Internet viewers, many of whom have ditched traditional televisions entirely. So it’s refreshing to hear the news that Nielsen and Twitter have teamed up with Social Guide to launch Twitter TV, a ratings service that measures which US television shows have the largest audience on the social network.
The chart aims to track an overall audience for each show based on the total number of tweets mentioning the program, and how many unique accounts are producing them. It’s a potential ratings gold mine for advertisers, and the initial rankings have revealed what nerds across the nation have always suspected: there is a huge gap—practically no overlap, according to Variety—between the highest rated shows and the most-tweeted shows. On Twitter TV’s charts, the most tweeted-about show for the week of September 23 was “Breaking Bad”; the top ranked show as measured by Nielsen was NBC’s “NFL Football: New England at Atlanta.”
While it seems that change is on the horizon, unfortunately Twitter TV isn’t quite the cult-show savior we’ve all been waiting for. The suits have all been clear that Twitter TV ratings do not translate into audience share; that’s still largely being decided by the Nielsen families. The main goal is actually related to commercial and advertising potential, as Twitter gears up for its IPO and anticipates working with major networks to coordinate advertisements seen on highly tweeted shows. But it’s a good baby step towards a more democratic view of TV, along with the proliferation of web-only series on Netflix and Hulu. As a recent convert to the CW show Supernatural (don’t judge me, the actors are pretty but the writing is solid too), I am gripped with anxiety as the ninth season premiers tonight, worrying that it will be the last, and that this new beloved show will fall under the same ruthless axe as previous favorites simply because the “standard Nielsen family” isn’t as interested as millions of online fans. We’re on the brink of television revolution, where the Internet has a serious stake in what is watched and what is produced; Twitter TV is a good first step in letting the bigwig producers know what we really want.