By Jessica Goldstein, The Washington Post
The Twitter haters are losing the war.
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You know who they are, or, perhaps, who you are. Those who dismiss the snappy social network as the Platonic Non-Ideal of oversharing undercooked ideas, of blurting out what's better left unsaid.
It was once safe to be in the hater camp; an unassailable position, really, like loathing Nickelback. But the haters' numbers are dwindling and -- dun dun dunnnnn! -- the establishment has sided with the upstart. Consumer information giant Nielsen is partnering with Twitter to create the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating, "a syndicated-standard metric around the reach of the TV conversation on Twitter," to be made available at the beginning of this fall's TV season.
This is exciting stuff, people! We've been stuck with an antiquated rating system for quite a while now, one that's still grappling with no-duh issues like "What about people who don't watch shows during their scheduled time slot?" and "How do we count the masses who don't watch TV shows on a television but instead use these other newfangled devices, like laptops and tablets and smartphones?" That Nielsen considers the conversation about television on Twitter too loud to ignore is a major development in Entertainmentland.
It's also potentially big news for ardent fans of little-watched shows. This new rating could provide a metric for recognizing the shows about which some people care deeply -- say, NBC's cult-favorite sitcom "Community" -- instead of simply rewarding the programs that lots of people just happen to have on, like the soundtrack to laundry-folding that is the "CSI" empire.
"Twitter commands a huge amount of public discussion in terms of social TV and social activity around TV," said Matt Anchin, senior vice president of global communications at Nielsen. "So it makes very good sense to look at the activity there."
Both advertisers and broadcasters want to get a handle on the impact of Twitter. "Everyone wants to understand the full audience ... Today you can get volume: how many tweets there have been about a specific show, program, celebrity or brand. To see the fullness of that conversation, it's, who read those tweets as well? That's ultimately what this is about. You'll get that full view of the total audience."
Anyone who's been on Twitter for at least a year could probably have seen this coming. For many, Twitter has become an integral part of the television-watching experience. The social conversation on Twitter about TV increased 800 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Mark Ghunein, CEO of online analytics company Trendrrsaid the new rating "provides the whole industry a currency and legitimizing media around engagement. I think it's important from that perspective. Twitter is the heartbeat of social TV."
Though the television industry has a track record of wariness when it comes to the Internet, broadcasters are becoming more accepting of Twitter. Cast members tweet about upcoming episodes, networks promote specific hashtags for viewers to use during shows and, in the case of HBO's "Girls," it's a prominent piece of an ad campaign. "What we find is that, increasingly, the entire industry is embracing that cross-platform approach," said Anchin.
The new ratings won't usurp the old; Nielsen will continue to produce a TV rating, to which this new rating will serve as a complement. Exactly how the new system will work, though, and whether this magic number will be used for more than just a means to a marketing end is yet to be determined. Even counting tweets can be tricky: broadcasters and advertisers want to know volume -- how many people tweeted about any given show -- but they also want to know about reach, how many people read the tweet and how influential was the person who tweeted it. When ZooeyDeschanel mentions an upcoming episode of "New Girl" to her 3.6 million followers, that's like getting free advertising to the equivalent of the entire population of Los Angeles.
What is known now is that the biggest hits on Twitter tend to be special events, usually live ones, with a hint of unpredictability. The Oscars garnered over 2 million tweets last year; the 2012 Super Bowl set a then-record for the highest number of tweets per second for an English-language event twice, first during Madonna's halftime show and then again at the end of the game; the Olympics sparked over 150 million tweets in just 16 days; there were 20 million tweets on Election Night.
Once viewers start having multiple-screen experiences, especially during hot-button broadcasts like awards shows and presidential debates, "you start to realize what a one-dimensional experience just watching TV is," said Ghunein.
Twitter has 200 million active users, meaning people who log in at least several times a month. (Users who read without tweeting can still be considered active.) According to Rachael Horwitz, a Twitter representative, a big hunk of that 200 million just doesn't want to watch TV without Twitter. "These folks are watching TV, the Olympics or the Oscars or 'The Voice,' and they want to have their Twitter app open or their laptop up to see what other fans [and] the stars of the shows are saying," said Horwitz.
Sports and reality shows make up about half of all social TV conversation. But the most tweeted-about show is "SpongeBob SquarePants," which averages 80,000 social interactions per episode and airs 250 telecasts per year. Competitions like "The X Factor," "The Voice" and "American Idol" build lots of Twitter buzz, too; the average "X Factor" episode yields over 615,000 tweets. Programs that appeal to a more Twitter-friendly audience, like the teen hit "Pretty Little Liars" and reality fare like "The Bad Girls Club" and "Love & Hip Hop Atlanta," also cracked 2012's top 10. Different programs perform well on different platforms. According to Facebook stats, its top five most buzzed-about shows in 2012 were "Duck Dynasty," "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo," "Big Bang Theory," "Game of Thrones" and "Downton Abbey."
The new rating could eventually help viewers navigate the overwhelming sea of channels that seems to for some reason always be showing the same two episodes of "How I Met Your Mother." You could get a guide that tells you the dozen or so shows your friends are tweeting about at that exact moment, so you can go where the action is. Nielsen recently acquired Social Guide, which "provides a social activity-driven guide to what viewers are looking at and what are they talking about," said Anchin. In other words, we're living in the future.
"We know that [clients] are very interested to understand where the most engaged audiences are," said Anchin. What the new ratings provide is "an incredibly exciting new dimension to understanding audiences and what they're thinking about."