In 1978, when CBS aired the first episode of the five-part miniseries Dallas, they weren’t anticipating that the dramas of J.R., Sue Ellen, Pamela, and Bobby would spark an international obsession that would carry on for 13 seasons—or that, for seven of those seasons, the show would earn a Nielsen top-10 TV rating. Imagine those thrilled network executives flipping through the first few reports with dollar signs in their eyes. Phones perched, they bargained for maximum advertising revenue.
This is a scene that executives and producers at TNT—the network that relaunched Dallas in 2012—probably would like to recreate. But they can’t. The reason? Networks aren’t sure what to make of Nielsen ratings anymore. Issued every Tuesday for decades, Nielsen ratings have become less reliable in our era of tablets, phones, DVRs, media streamers, and media-on-demand services such as Netflix and Hulu. These technologies cater to a fickle human nature that prefers to watch Dance Moms without the commercials or on an iPad while the kiddo is in ballet class. And while 60 Minutes counts on a loyal live audience, it’s one of the few shows that can. Time-shifting (a term for watching a show when you want to instead of when it airs) is taking over the television industry, and Nielsen is scrambling keep networks in the know.
Part of the scramble has Nielsen teaming with Twitter to develop a social TV metric that will assign a Nielsen Twitter TV rating to a show based on quantity and quality of tweets. This metric is part of a new Nielsen report that will launch in September 2013 to help networks quantify time-shifting and social-networking buzz. The effectiveness of the Nielsen Twitter TV rating is unknown because it hasn’t started yet, but some are worried that it will negatively impact fledgling programs that haven’t sparked social TV talk.
The score might effect new programming as well, because some groups of people are more likely to tweet during TV than others. And networks might develop shows specifically for those audiences. The use of Twitter on some new shows suggests this is already taking place. ABC’s Scandal, released in 2012, keeps its momentum on Twitter in part through an enthusiastic African American following. The award-winning show, which set off a cacophony of tweets with the onscreen hashtag #WhoShotFitz, is “a sure thing” for a 2013 renewal, says TVline.com. Shows like Scandal that incorporate social TV into the narrative and are targeted to audiences comfortable with technology, such as Millennials, might become more prevalent once the Nielsen Twitter TV rating takes hold.
We can see where the Nielsen Twitter rating is taking television by looking at how current shows are building their social media presence. Established shows seem to be setting the stage, but they use social media in different ways. For example, NBC’s long-running The Biggest Loser did not use fan comments throughout its latest season but displayed them during the live finale. However, another long-running show, The Bachelor, used Twitter comments during both the recorded episodes and the live finale. Other shows, such as Lifetime’s Dance Moms, don’t integrate social media remarks at all during the broadcast but make a strong effort to build legions of fans on Twitter and Facebook. Fans are encouraged to interact with producers and show staff through contests and games that encourage commenting.
No one has to be convinced that the world is changing, and TV is along for the ride. Back in the 1980s, Dallas fans had to buy a “Who Shot J.R.?” T-shirt to express themselves. Today, they can just visit DallasFanzine on Twitter and click “Follow” to show support. But one thing stays the same: Nielsen will be watching.