Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Nielsen Blesses Twitter’s Tale With a New Study: Tweets Really Can Boost Ratings

sharknadoAll that Twittering about TV? It really does boost TV ratings.

So says Nielsen, in a new study that Twitter executives, among others, will be delighted to see.

It’s the first research that conclusively states that an increase in Twitter commentary about a TV show can increase viewership of that same show as it airs live.

That’s a very big deal for Twitter, because it will be seen as validation for a pitch Twitter has been making to TV networks and advertisers for a couple of years: Work with us, and we’ll help you get more eyeballs on the stuff you put on TV.

And that pitch is more important than ever, as Twitter starts to get very serious about ad money, and about an impending IPO.

Caveats? Sure: Start with the word “can”: Nielsen doesn’t say that this always happens, just that it does some of the time.

A minority of the time, actually: In a survey of broadcast prime-time programming, Nielsen found that Twitter activity caused statistically “significant changes” 29 percent of the time. TV executives, meanwhile, can point to examples where lots of Twittering didn’t seem to do much for ratings — like “Sharknado” — or where there was lots of Twittering, but ratings actually declined — like last year’s VMA ceremony on MTV.

And while Nielsen breaks out the kind of programming where a boost is most likely to happen — not surprisingly, Twitter is most effective at boosting ratings for reality shows — it never comes out and says how big the boost is.

I went over — and over — this with Mike Hess, Nielsen’s executive vice president of media analytics. The short answer, translated for statistical knuckle-draggers like myself: In this study, Nielsen simply isn’t able to quantify Twitter’s impact — just that it exists, sometimes. Figuring out the size of that lift is a task for a future study.

But Hess does allow that an earlier Nielsen study on correlation (instead of causation, like this one) suggests that a lot of tweeting may have a relatively small effect on ratings.

And that syncs with the reaction I got from a digitally savvy TV executive I queried about this research: Twitter can boost our ratings a little bit, the exec told me, but beyond a certain point, more tweeting about our shows just leads to more tweeting about our shows, not more eyeballs.

But more tweeting about TV shows is still a good thing for TV executives. More important: Even tiny bumps in ratings can mean real money for the networks, who need to justify a $76 billion ad business as eyeballs flitter away to digital distractions. So, if this research holds up, it’s going to be a big deal.

Note that this research comes a week after Nielsen released a study that showed that Facebook’s audience can rival TV’s – yet another signal that Facebook is increasingly interested in both “social TV” and TV ad dollars.

One subtle difference between the two reports: Facebook paid Nielsen for last week’s research. Nielsen says today’s report was conducted independently of Twitter, though the two companies are working together to produce “Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings.”


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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald