Could Nielsen and it's diaries be going the way of the VRC and Blockbuster?
A story in Wired magazine suggest that the way Nielsen tracks viewers is out of dat in the social media world.
The write that on February 7, the fourth season of Community kicked off on NBC. It was something of a shock that the show had survived for so long. It ranked 193rd among broadcast shows. In May 2012, series creator and showrunner Dan Harmon had been unceremoniously canned. And on the night it aired, the season premiere pulled in just 4 million viewers. That’s a mere quarter of the audience enjoyed by ratings juggernauts like Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory. It even underperformed a rerun of the ABC reality show Shark Tank on the Nielsen charts.
Until recently, those 4 million viewers would have been the end of the story. Just a few years ago, similar niche favorites like Jericho and Firefly were summarily executed for such numbers. In fact, cult legend Freaks and Geeks averaged nearly 7 million viewers in its single, 1999-2000 season before getting canceled. But that night in February,Community accomplished something that none of those shows ever had the chance to do—it spawned two worldwide trending topics on Twitter.
All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs. Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men—each struggles to get a Nielsen score higher than 3, representing about 8.7 million viewers. And it’s not just cable. NBC’s 30 Rock struggled to top a score of 2.5, and Parks and Recreation rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25. There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing. Since the 1970s, television has been ruled by the Nielsen Family—25,000 households whose TV habits collectively provide a statistical snapshot of a nation’s viewing behavior. Over the years, the Nielsen rating has been tweaked, but it still serves one fundamental purpose: to gauge how many people are watching a given show on a conventional television set. But that’s not how we watch any more. Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, tablet—none of these platforms or devices are reflected in the Nielsen rating. (In February Nielsen announced that this fall it would finally begin including Internet streaming to TV sets in its ratings.)
And the TV experience doesn’t stop when the episode ends. We watch with tablets on our laps so we can look up an actor’s IMDb page. We tweet about the latest plot twist (discreetly, to avoid spoilers). We fill up the comments section of our favorite online recappers. We kibitz with Facebook friends about Hannah Horvath’s latest paramour. We start Tumblrs devoted to Downton decor. We’re engaging with a show even if we aren’t watching it, but none of this behavior factors into Nielsen’s calculation of its impact.
So far, advertisers don’t have a good way to track that viral activity. But many of them are willing to pay for it—even if the official Nielsen ratings don’t measure up. “It’s more about the social media zeitgeist of the program,” says Jackie Kulesza, a senior vice president at Starcom USA, which buys advertising time. 30 Rock, which managed to stay on the air for seven seasons despite perennially low ratings, “was very strong in this area.” That helps explain why Nielsen and others have been scrambling to generate a new kind of TV rating, one that takes into account all of the activity that occurs on screens other than a television. In November, Nielsen purchased SocialGuide, which analyzes “the social impact of linear television,” according to the company’s website. One month later, it announced a partnership with Twitter in an effort to devise a new social-TV rating, which will debut this fall. In February, Twitter itself purchased Bluefin Labs, a social-TV analytics company.
It all adds up to a potentially thrilling new era for television, one that values shows that spark conversations, not just those that hook us for 30 minutes. The stakes are high: Get it right and great programming will continue to thrive. Get it wrong and the $70 billion television industry is in jeopardy—and so is your favorite show.