Twitter wants its future stockholders to believe it's the fastest way to a TV viewer's heart (and wallet). But can hashtags and retweets alone show us what's going to be the next Breaking Bad? Doubtful.
Nielsen, the ratings monitoring service that gives networks the ammo to charge exorbitant prices for commercials, released their first "Twitter TV ratings"—ratings metrics that take into account social-media activity—this Monday.
On the surface, the new metrics sound great! Near-nonsense phrases like "finger on the pulse," "zeitgeist," and "buzz analytics" have been thrown around to convince networks, and Hollywood, that this metric will help the television industry keep pace with the rapidly growing landscape of social media.
But really? It's a load of crap solely designed to make Twitter rich and keep Nielsen richer.
1. The metrics don't measure quality, just "mention."
Social Guide, the arm of Nielsen created for measuring Twitter chatter (and for allowing Nielsen to pretend they're not a monopoly, by hiding behind different names), takes into account four criteria when measuring Twitter/TV interactions:
- tweets about a particular episode,
- the number of Twitter users tweeting about said episode,
- impressions (the total number of times any particular tweet about the episode was seen), and
- unique audience (the number of individual Twitter accounts that have seen a tweet about said episode).
Impressions and uniques mumbo-jumbo aside, there is one major takeaway here: Twitter metrics simply cannot account for whether the show is actually well-received, only how much it's tweeted about.
Traditional Nielsen numbers, which relied on set-top boxes or diaries, give a far more accurate metric of actual viewership, because it's unlikely that Nielsen households would keep the dial tuned toward a show on they hated. Twitter numbers, in contrast, include people who dislike the show—love or hate, as long as you tweet about it, you become one of the inflated statistics.
So there's no way to tell how many of the 178,500 authors tweeting about Miley: The Movement—reaching more than three million fellow tweeters—actually like Miley and would buy products advertised against the show, and how many—like me—were simply begging for Miley to go away.
2. There is no correlation between Twitter mentions and actual television viewership.
An August 2013 Nielsen study analyzing the causal relationship between Twitter and TV "showed that the volume of tweets caused significant changes in live TV ratings among 29 percent of the episodes."
Interesting that just two months later, their first TV Twitter ratings showed absolutely no correlation between the most tweeted about shows and the highest rated. From September 23 through September 29th, the most tweeted shows included Breaking Bad, Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Grey's Anatomy, and Glee. Meanwhile, the most viewed shows included Sunday Night Footbal on NBC, The Big Bang Theory, and NCIS. The only overlap between the two groups? The Tuesday night edition of The Voice.
Twitter ratings can tell you who the loudest viewers are—and you can hope that means the most passionate. But if you're a big advertiser you'd probably rather shoot for the safety of a show you know will be seen by a million different people—not just tweeted about a million times.
3. All this is doing is help Twitter make money.
It's no secret that Twitter is losing money. After all, the promoted tweets you see in your timeline aren't enough: Twitter doesn't turn a profit unless you actually click on an ad. It's in Twitter's best interests to boast about 38 million "impressions" during the premiere of Scandal—even if, according to Nielsen's traditional metrics, "only" 10 million people tuned in.
While Facebook is sending their similarly aggregated data directly to the big four networks, Twitter is using its partnership with Nielsen in hopes of drumming up some capital. The Nielsen TV Twitter ratings were announced back in December, but the first batch were released coincidentally a mere three days after the social media giant filed its IPO paperwork.
Twitter launched Twitter Amplify this fall, allowing networks to fill your timeline with promoted tweets and video content related to shows they think you might be watching. Amplify partners perfectly with Nielsen's Social Guide, to allow advertisers to see large numbers and instantly parlay that into pumping out seemingly relevant promoted content in real time.
4. ...Not to mention Nielsen.
Nielsen has enjoyed a monopoly over the TV tracking business since the 1950s, but the majority of its research comes from self-funded studies. As previously mentioned, Nielsen once boasted that Twitter mentions led to a positive ratings change in 29 percent of shows that were being tweeted about. But no statistics were released to show how Twitter actually boosted the ratings of any shows in the inaugural analytics released this week—definitely not any giving any credibility to that 29 percent boost Nielsen was throwing around earlier in the summer, that's for sure.
Nielsen has long been under fire from media companies that are dissatisfied with its ratings system—specifically, the lack of precision and accuracy in their metrics. Competitors such as ComScore have stepped up to try to battle Nielsen both in traditional ratings as well as online monitoring.
Twitter TV is Nielsen's strike back. By offering data that boasts insanely high numbers, and pairing them with a service that allows advertisers instant buys on those numbers (rather than the outdated network television ad buys that advertisers have to commit to in May of each year for all of their fall and winter advertising), Twitter TV ratings allow Nielsen to strengthen its chokehold on the ratings industry—without providing any sort of actually useful data.
5. The "second screen" experience is bullshit.
It's impossible to have a conversation about Twitter and television without discussing the stupidity of the "second screen." While live tweeting on one hand draws eyeballs to one screen during airings—no one wants to be the person avoiding social media, just for the sake of skipping yet another Geico commercial—it draws your attention away from the other screen.
Nielsen, in another one of their self-funded studies, would have you believe that "second screen" viewing enriches your experience. Not only are you watching a show you like, but you can look up things related to the show, find other shows to watch that are related, and best of all, buy products being advertised to you in real time on both screens. Advertisers would love for you to buy into that.
But really? It's just fucking distracting. I was so busy during Breaking Bad trying to Google the profit margins on meth that I ended up missing the entire shootout with you-know-who in the second season. My only takeaway from the first season of Downton Abbey was my hashtag #DrunktownAbbey, and not a single thing about the Dowager Countess (I may have also been watching drunk, but the second screen sure didn't help). I don't know if it ruins shows artistically—but, as always, that's secondary to the industry's real concern, and it seems clear that if you're staring at your iPad you're not watching the Geico ad.
[Art by Sam Woolley]