Nielsen ratings have been the go-to TV viewership measurement for over 50 years. And while many viewers still sit down every evening, turn on their TV, and find their favorite show, there’s a new growing trend: Television on the go, whether streamed digitally to a tablet or smartphone or reported on moment-by-moment thanks to social media services like Twitter. Nielsen, in an effort to modernize their practice and provide accurate viewing results, has introduced Twitter Nielsen ratings as way to gauge real-time sentiment and interest. But what does this really mean for the TV industry?


A Little Neater Next Time, Please

Prior to the mobile device revolution and rise of social media, collecting TV viewer data was a relatively simple process for Nielsen. It began with asking families to keep written diaries of any show they watched for more than five minutes, and evolved into what’s known as the “Nielsen box.” Once connected to a user’s television, cable box, or personal video recorder (PVR), the box collected and sent data to Nielsen for analysis.

Based on viewership results, the company was able to determine the relative popularity of a program, in turn allowing them to recommend how much networks should charge for advertising during commercials. A top-rated show, for example, could command huge sums for even a tiny bit of airtime. In addition, networks used these ratings to cancel shows which didn’t perform or lost viewer interest during the season. According to CNN, the ratings company still uses these basic methods for much of its data.

Streaming media, however, has changed the how and when consumers view television; most importantly, many in the coveted 18-24 demographic don’t bother with televisions to watch their favorite programs but instead have them streamed directly to a mobile device. What’s more, they don’t always sit down and watch full episodes. They may tune in for five minutes on the way to work or school, for another fifteen during lunch and then again on their way home. Ignoring these viewers — and the social media interest they generate — is a problem.


According to Nielsen, they’ve now partnered with social media site Twitter to create Twitter Nielsen ratings, which will ideally allow networks to “measure the full Twitter engagement surrounding their programs, to measure the effectiveness of Twitter TV-related audience engagement strategies, and to better understand the relationship between Twitter and tune-in.” Data gathered by Nielsen suggests that there’s a 50:1 ratio between viewers and Tweeters; in other words, if 5,000 people Tweet about a show, approximately 25,0000 are actually watching.

For the TV industry, these ratings are both welcome and worrisome. Trending topics on Twitter are a good measure of public interest, but don’t typically last for more than a few days—if networks can’t capitalize on a program’s popularity almost immediately, the Twitterverse will find something else of interest. What’s more, the 50:1 ratio is an approximation at best; networks can’t let this stand in for hard data.

Ultimately, the new Twitter Nielsen ratings are a step in the right direction for the television industry. Ignoring mobile and social means forgetting a huge market segment; even if Twitter TV ratings aren’t entirely accurate, they’re better than flying blind.

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