How Social Media Changed the Nielsen Ratings System

Last year I wrote a piece about the Nielsen Ratings System and how it was clearly antiquated. They were promising changes in the near future, but how would that help the fledgling shows in the meantime? We saw Almost Human (one of the most perfect first seasons I’ve seen on television) fall by the wayside while Sleepy Hollow (a fun show, but not as sound as Almost Human when it came to writing, theme, or plotting) became the popular new show.

In a time when social media was becoming the colossal force it is today, why didn’t Nielsen take into account all the people talking about shows that were soon cancelled, shows that have since become cult classics like Arrested Development or Pushing Daisies? The short answer is that it’s difficult to stay abreast of new technology. Nielsen had to watch new patterns arise and figure out how to harness them to utilize in a new system.

Now that shows can be watched online (including mobile) and people are talking about their favorite shows in a way that can be compiled, Nielsen has recently revamped their system. We’re finally getting an updated system that will be able to incorporate the various ways in which TV makes an impact on society. It’s an exciting time for those of us who want to see great new shows succeed. I still have thoughts about what it takes to really make it big (unfortunately, my favorite shows will probably always be cancelled in their prime) – but more on that later.

The biggest change that Nielsen has already made is that they have proposed a new model of viewers that doesn’t rely on sex or age. Instead of hoping to corral the 18-25 demographic, companies are now being given information about user behavior and user motivation with the aid of psychographics. This allows Nielsen to stop making blanket judgements and to treat the information a wee bit more individually. This is great for shows that have fans spread throughout several age ranges and for viewers who don’t subscribe to society’s idea of “normal” sexuality.

I think this is a great step forward. Universal appeal will be easier to note, and shows that would otherwise falter because of lack of viewership in one category won’t be penalized. Think back to older shows that were geared toward family – shows like The Munsters, Leave it to Beaver, or The Brady Bunch. These shows would have received even more positive feedback. I think new shows like Modern Family will benefit the most from this change.

Another change already put in place by Nielsen occurred last fall when Nielsen opened up the system to Twitter TV Ratings, which takes into account the conversations centering around TV, not only counting individuals tweeting, but how many people each individual is reaching. Let’s think about a new show that’s barely on its feet, like this summer’s Crossbones. Instead of just counting my tweets (of which there will continue to be several since this show is highly underrated and not receiving the notice it richly deserves), Nielsen will count whoever views my tweet. That might not be a lot right now since I just joined Twitter a few weeks ago, but it does mean that all 30+ of my followers will be able to see my tweets about Crossbones and could be counted by Nielsen. What if actors, producers, writers, and critics talked about a show? Think about all the people who follow them. This has the potential to boost awareness of a new show tremendously.

With 19 million individuals tweeting over 200 million tweets, that’s a ton of free press! Will this change the way advertising is done? With the advent of social media, I’ve already seen a difference in how I receive advertisements. I follow show pages on FaceBook, I follow actors’ Twitter accounts and Tumblrs. I get most of my news about what’s on television not from marketing, but from individuals. I don’t know about you, but I trust other people like me more than I trust a marketing executive who doesn’t know me or what I like. How can I be sure they’ll know exactly what to say to let me know there’s a new show I would enjoy?

Now, this inclusion of Twitter and other social media does not change the way traditional TV ratings are done by Nielsen. They are factored into a separate information section. I think this is probably best due to the fact that while I do trust individuals who are like-minded, there are a lot of individuals I disagree with. Nielsen needs to be as impartial as possible and simply collect data from reliable sources if it is to convey a true picture of a show’s rating.
This year marks Nielsen’s next step. The 2014-2015 television season will see Nielsen add both mobile and digital service information to the traditional rating system as well as include a branch called Nielsen Digital Ratings. It will be more census-style, less prone to subjectivity.

It’s a fantastic step that probably should have been implemented earlier, but again, Nielsen was probably gauging what systems were going to stay and which were going to slide off the map. They made a smart decision to resist investing in re-creating their system until platforms were solidly built on foundations of viewers who wouldn’t be going anywhere for the foreseeable future (which isn’t that many, really – but you’ve got to keep up or else you’ll be the one without a geographic location on the map of emerging technology).

I wish this system had been around even last year. I keep going back to Almost Human and mourning the loss of a spectacular show. While it would have been nice to see the numbers, I think part of the reason some shows that become cult classics are cancelled early is because they will never draw the kind of crowds that marketers want. They appeal to niche audiences, to critics, to those who want more from their shows.

Shows of exceeding high quality take more energy to watch. You need to engage in the story and become invested in the characters. You have to care. And sometimes, it’s too exhausting to give yourself to another show which is why some of the greatest shows ever to grace the small screen have been given an early termination date.

I’m hopeful that while Nielsen embraces new ways to rate TV shows, that the overall idea behind it changes. While some people don’t mind watching commercials, and we know we need commercials to support television shows being made, my main reason to watch TV isn’t to watch ads. It’s to see magic being performed as a story unfolds before my eyes.

There has to be a mix of art and business. I get that. There isn’t a perfect model. But I’ve seen some shows online that have managed to change the way TV has to be funded. And while Nielsen has taken some great strides which will enable generally popular TV shows to keep going, the niche stories might have to move online, which will take a lot of TV’s most engaged audience members.

It’ll be interesting to see how Nielsen has to evolve to keep up with changing viewer habits over the next few years. In the meantime, I mean to make a little more effort to support the shows I love, both online and off.

Image Credits: Anthony Quintano
K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone

K.M. Cone is a story nerd, particularly for the episodic stories told via the medium of television. When not parked in front of the TV, K.M. Cone can be found writing kooky urban fantasy on her personal site, attempting to learn German, or making a huge pot of soup for her friends, who are probably coming over to join her in her latest TV or animated film obsession.
K.M. Cone

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