We’ve reported on many case studies over the last couple years about how social media has the power to drive people to TV. Twitter repeatedly says it’s “driving people to linear television” with real-time conversations, citing a study that showed increasing positive correlation nearing airtime. Facebook explains it’s “pretty confident” the platform drives viewership. And a survey by TVGuide discovered 17 percent of respondents say they have started to watch a show and 31 percent say they have continued to watch a show because of a social impression.
But there are still skeptics. AdAge TV Editor Brian Steinberg questions the correlation in context of the new Fall season. “I’m not convinced the people tracked in the still-emerging venue of whatever comprises social TV these days actually come through the door when it really counts,” he writes, adding that using social TV data to drive ad spending is like dumping all your hard-earned money “into a sinkhole in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”
We’ll take the bait on that one.
To be fair, Steinberg admits there’s some value in social TV data, but he remains unconvinced about its ability to drive ratings, and by extension, any ability to predict the success of new TV shows. Scientifically, the jury’s still out, save this NM Incite-Nielsen study last year that found a statistically significant correlation between “buzz” and ratings among the 18-34 year-old demographic. (The study did not include Twitter, and both companies are working on an updated version, release TBD.)
Without enough cold hard facts, Steinberg concludes social media may drive viewership to younger-skewing shows (think “Pretty Little Liars”), but it may be useless for mainstream shows on TV. In reality, that’s an overly simplistic analysis about a complex subject. Most TV marketers agree that social media drives ratings to varying degrees, and there are many factors at work beyond demographics:
Lead-ins, competition and promotional spend
The best predictor of a TV show’s success is whether or not it’s a good TV show. Beyond that, the next most powerful predictors are the show’s lead-in, the competition in the same time slot and the amount of promotional visibility invested in it. After all, linear TV is not an even playing field. So it’s dangerous to conclude that a particularly buzzy TV show bombed in the ratings, and by extension, social media doesn’t influence viewership. Social TV’s influence complements TV but does not exceed it. If a show is buried on the schedule, it will likely fail regardless of the social TV ratings.
The opposite is also true: if a show premieres to a big number thanks to a generous lead-in, we have to be careful not to give social media all the credit.
The rating metric that advertisers watch is called C3, which combines live TV viewing plus three days of DVR viewing. However, there’s a growing population of viewers who watch shows on other platforms, like Hulu. And not just current episodes. For example, when Sons of Anarchy was released on Netflix, creator Kurt Sutter said he had received “so many tweets and Facebook messages from fans who just discovered the show” on the online service.
There’s also an increasing trend of viewers who “binge” on shows on Netflix or Amazon, watching several episodes back-to-back on their own time, a season or two behind the current live episodes. “TV binge-watching is a pandemic,” explains Slate. None of this viewing is considered — not to mention any DVR’d shows after 3 days — and viewers who discover shows via social media are often more inclined than the general population to watch in an unmeasured way.
As Nielsen continues to expand its measurement techniques — and as networks begin to take into consideration a show’s success on other platforms as TV Everywhere begins to gain traction — social media’s impact will become even clearer.
Social sentiment and previous viewing investment
If everyone who’s watching a new show is tweeting that it’s terrible, that’s not a good indicator of its future ratings success. In this case, social media — just like negative endorsements spread via word-of-mouth — will likely inhibit viewership. The impact is disproportional for new shows: there’s an investment that viewers need to make, getting to know the characters and engaging in the storyline. Without an initial investment, sentiment makes more of an impact than a particularly disappointing episode of a show you’ve watched a few times along the way.
Networked Insights just conducted a sentiment study of the most-anticipated Fall shows, and the company concluded that raw numbers of social mentions are a questionable leading indicator of a show’s popularity. Note that such an assessment doesn’t question the value of social buzz, but adds a new dimension that becomes heightened during the Fall season.
The price of social silence
A couple years ago, it was a novel idea to promote your show on Facebook and Twitter. A year ago, it was all about hashtags on TV and Facebook apps. Today, just about every broadcast and cable network is employing a wide range of social tactics to elevate their shows, talent and brands above the din. It’s not that it doesn’t work: it’s just that everyone’s doing it as a core component of their marketing — and increasingly — writing and production efforts, too. The standard social fare is no longer special.
But if you’re not investing in social, that silence doesn’t ensure you’ll stay at a ratings par, but that you’ll face an inevitable decline. If you’re not part of the conversation, if you’re absent from the social platforms where millions of TV viewers discover content — across all age groups on Facebook — then your mass media brands become less “mass” over time.
Among all these factors, let’s take NBC’s Revolution as an example. The show topped TVGuide’s list of Fall’s most anticipated new shows based on Watchlist data, which tracks which new shows TVGuide users are following the most. Steinberg questioned the ranking as a predictor of success, yet the show premiered to spectacular ratings. However, the show enjoyed a terrific lead-in from The Voice, so it’s difficult to predict its staying power.
“I’m conservative about predicting the accuracy of this year’s top new Watchlist shows, but I’m interested to see if it will be as accurate as last year, when 8 of the top 10 received full season pickups,” TVGuide.com GM Christy Tanner told us. “Ultimately, I believe the Watchlist data will prove an extremely valid and valuable source of predictive data — potentially more valuable than other data that currently feels a bit hyped.”
In the end, we know that social TV buzz really does move the ratings needle, and by extension, it helps predict the success of a TV show. But we don’t know how much. It varies by show, by network, by circumstance. While it’s dangerous to assert that social media gets all the credit for a show’s success, it’s even more dangerous to claim that social media makes no mainstream ratings impact. Social media is a growing contributor to ratings success, but not a guarantee. However, as measurement improves across more platforms, the picture will become much clearer.