Tweets on twerking seen as lifeline to lure pay-TV viewers

Meredith Parker, a 23-year-old sales rep in New York, spends most nights out meeting friends or attending work events. Any night but Monday.

That's when she rushes home to watch ABC's “The Bachelor,” a reality show that begins its 18th season in January. In an era when DVRs, TiVo and Web-TV services like Netflix make it easy for audiences to view programs any time they want, Parker would rather see her favorite program right when it airs. Parker's motivation: the social-media frenzy that surrounds the show.

“Whether it's Twitter or Facebook, it's kind of forced me to watch it live that day,” she said. “You have to keep up on your shows because of spoilers and just the general chatter. It's hard to avoid, and I don't want to miss out.”

That sentiment underscores a surprising side effect of social media on television ratings and pay-TV providers. Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc., often seen as new distractions competing for a viewer's time, have instead become forums for real-time referendums about TV — whether it's to gripe about a passing blunder from a favorite football team or to express shock over the conclusion of AMC's “Breaking Bad.”

Twitter and Facebook are providing a potential lifeline to pay-TV companies looking to hang onto subscribers, as well as networks struggling to maintain ratings. U.S. cable and satellite TV subscriptions are expected to decline in 2013 for the first time ever, dropping to 100.8 million from 100.9 million, according to research firm IHS.

Twerking tweets

“Twitter and Facebook — it's where our audience lives, and we have to be there,” Viacom Chief Executive Officer Philippe Dauman said in an interview. He cited the torrent of Twitter activity around the VMA awards show, which aired on Viacom's MTV network in August. The program featured a bawdy “twerking” performance by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke.

“People were tweeting about Miley, going, ‘I gotta see this,'” Dauman said. “It's a great symbiotic relationship where we drive the conversation on Twitter, and that conversation on Twitter drives people back to watch our shows.”

The show altogether generated 18.5 million tweets, accounting for 90 percent of the Twitter conversation about TV that evening, according to Social Guide, the unit of Nielsen that measures social media. The show's ratings were up 53 percent over the previous year as well, Nielsen found.

Ratings Decline

The phenomenon is mitigating concerns that consumers are likely to cut their cable and satellite bills in favor of Internet-delivered TV, which streams programs a day or more after their original broadcast. Major TV networks suffered a collective 7.2 percent drop in viewers last season. Cable providers, meanwhile, are seeing an exodus of TV customers as digital services such as Netflix Inc. and Hulu LLC add users.

This week, Nielsen began publishing a regular ranking of the top TV shows most visible on Twitter. The firm is tallying how many people see tweets about a particular program, as well as how many Twitter messages are posted, offering new ways to gauge the success of shows.

“Breaking Bad” drew the biggest Twitter audience of any TV show for the last week of September, according to Nielsen, with 9.3 million people viewing 1.2 million tweets. On average, there are 50 times more people reading tweets about TV than there are those posting, Nielsen said.

Ratings Impact

Twitter also has the ability to directly boost TV ratings, a Nielsen study from August found. The analysis showed that TV- related tweets increased ratings in 29 percent of the episodes sampled, opening up the possibility of TV executives using social media to lure people to live broadcasts.

In addition, at least two-thirds of people who subscribe to pay-TV providers such as Time Warner Cable Inc. or DirecTV do so because they want live programming, according to a separate study conducted by consulting firm Altman Vilandrie & Co.

While TV executives are eager to attract Twitter users, the new rankings also raise concerns, said David Poltrack, the head of research for CBS Corp.

“When Nielsen starts publishing Twitter ratings, they're going to be confusing for a lot of people,” he said.

Poltrack cited the campy TV movie “Sharknado,” which aired this year on NBCUniversal's cable network SyFy. The film, about a freak tornado that lifts sharks out of the ocean and shoots them throughout the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, spawned close to 700,000 tweets while attracting only 1.4 million television viewers, according to Poltrack. In contrast, the CBS series “Under the Dome” inspired 126,000 Twitter posts but drew a much bigger TV audience of 13.6 million.

No Connection?

“So on the major scale, there's really no correlation between tweets and program popularity,” Poltrack said.

Only 3 percent of the total discussions around TV programs occur on Twitter and Facebook, while over 80 percent happen face to face, Poltrack said, citing research from marketing firm Keller Fay Group LLC. In order to provide a counterweight to Nielsen's new Twitter rankings, CBS has commissioned Keller Fay to start providing regular reports on where conversations about CBS shows are happening, whether they're online or offline.

Television still attracts more U.S. advertising dollars than the Internet, at $64.3 billion this year, compared with $36.3 billion online, according to ZenithOptimedia, the research arm of advertising company Publicis Groupe SA.

Part of Mix

“Twitter is one part of our overall media strategy, so to look at Twitter at driving TV ratings is a little bit like wondering if radio drives TV viewership,” said David Wertheimer, president of digital for Fox Broadcasting. “It is part of an overall mix. It's a way to get impressions. You would never rely on just that one thing.”

Both Twitter and Facebook have lobbied TV executives to use their service to promote programs, as well as to mine its users' posts to broadcast in the shows themselves. Parker, the fan of “The Bachelor,” said she enjoys seeing Twitter posts that appear on screen during the broadcasts.

“Some of the Twitter quotes that pop up throughout the show — it's the exact thought I was having at that moment,” she said.

Fred Graver, who heads up TV partnerships for San Francisco-based Twitter, said it's another way of storytelling.

“What's great is it doesn't intrude on what's happening in the episode — it augments it,” he said.

Costolo's Plan

Twitter started courting the networks almost five years ago, when CEO Dick Costolo — who was then the startup's chief operating officer — decided that the short-messaging service worked best as a companion media, or a digital water cooler, according to George Schweitzer, head of marketing for CBS.

Schweitzer recalled meeting with Costolo at a midtown Manhattan restaurant, where the Twitter executive “made a very smart pitch.”

“He said, ‘I think we understand what we are. We're the adjunct media: the place where people go to talk about whatever is happening, whether it's on TV or anywhere else,'” Schweitzer said.

TV producers took notice of Twitter's popularity and started using it to promote shows that might not get the same live TV audience otherwise. Shonda Rhimes, the head producer behind the ABC show “Scandal,” started tweeting about every episode from the first day, according to Ben Blatt, director of digital strategy for ABC.

‘Viewing Party'

“So we posted tweets as people were watching it, and it had the feeling of a viewing party,” he said. Rhimes also alerted Blatt and his team to major future plot points as a way to drive viewership to the show.

“For ‘Scandal' we had a consistent 2.0 rating early on,” Blatt said, referring to the Nielsen ratings measurement where each point equals about 1.15 million homes. “When this Twitter initiative started, we were at 2.5, then 2.7, then we ended the season at 3.2. It's hard to ignore.”

Twitter, which filed public documents last week for an initial public offering, has also forged partnerships with major TV networks and professional sports leagues, such as CBS and the NFL. The agreements let Twitter publish video clips of game highlights or TV programs within a tweet. Both the content owners and Twitter can sell short video ads that play in front of each clip and share in the revenue, according to Graver.

Facebook, the world's largest social network, has opened up some of its members' public musings about TV shows to broadcast networks such as ABC. As part of an agreement, the network has started to cull data about Facebook users for its reality show “Dancing With the Stars.”

‘Dancing' Chatter

The program's producers are using Facebook to flash statistics on screen showing how many of its users are discussing the program's contestants at a given moment, as well as which dancing couples generated the most chatter.

Part of the challenge for Facebook is most people can't see the full sweep of posts about a particular topic, whether it's “Dancing With the Stars” or a world event. Facebook users are generally only privy to posts from their immediate circle of friends and family. Twitter, by contrast, is a public platform.

“We actually think there are more people on Facebook having these discussions, but it hasn't been captured entirely because people can't see everyone else's posts and the data wasn't readily available before,” ABC's Blatt said. That's given Twitter “a leg up,” he said.

In any case, there's no amount of social-networking buzz that can fix a bad show, CBS's Schweitzer said.

“The most important thing overall is it's got to be about good content,” he said. “Bad content doesn't play in any world.”

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