NBC’s head of research on Twitter driving ratings: ‘it just isn’t true’

By Natan Edelsburg 

twitter-tvThe war to make sense of social TV took an interesting turn yesterday when NBCU’s head of research Alan Wurtzel told the Financial Times’ Emily Steel that Twitter isn’t driving ratings. Re/code’s Peter Kafka summed up the key quotes from Wurtzel:

The crucial quotes from Wurtzel, relayed by the FT’s Emily Steel: “Why wouldn’t I want to say to you, ‘We have a potent new way in which we can drive ratings?’” But “it just isn’t true,” he added. “I am saying the emperor wears no clothes. It is what it is. These are the numbers.”

Here’s how Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has since responded. What’s fascinating about this interview is that NBCU and their parent company Comcast have constantly been at the top of innovating with Twitter. They even announced a groundbreaking partnership called SEEit last November. Lost Remote also exclusively broke that Twitter will only be offering their data to vendors who produce on-screen tweets if they only offer Twitter on-air services. Kafka points out that because of Twitter’s dedication to social TV, “it’s on track to do more than $1 billion in revenue this year.” In their earnings call yesterday Costolo said the following in response to Wurtzel:

Our Twitter and TV strategy, and our investment into that thesis, was very much based on data that we saw informing the two-way complementary relationship between Twitter and TV. As that strategy has evolved, and we’ve continued to invest in it, there is a host, and a continuing emergence, of independent, third-party rigorous research that validates our belief in that investment thesis and strategy.

Fox research has produced research that shows 92 percent of Twitter users have taken immediately some action like either tuning into the TV show, or searching for the TV show after seeing a tweet about the show.

Symphony Advanced Media highlighted that using Twitter while watching TV decreases an audience member’s likelihood to change the channel.

And then Nielsen found a causal relationship between Twitter activity and tune-in. Further, there were only three things that correlated with TV ratings in that study: Prior seasons’ ratings for the show, ad spend for the show, and Twitter activity. So all of that tells us, in addition to I would say, the growing number of content providers and broadcasters participating in our Amplify program, that our Twitter and TV strategy is on the right track.

This morning Costolo went on CNBC’s Squawk on the Street and spoke with Carl Quintanilla about a variety of items including Wurtzel’s comments. Here’s a transcript of the conversation after Costolo was asked to respond to Wurtzel.

Well, I have a different perspective. Look, when we developed our Twitter and TV strategy, it was because of a wealth of data that we had, that showed us that there was a complimentary 2-way relationship. Not just that Twitter made TV better, and Twitter drove tune-in, and aggregated attention to what was happening on TV, but also that television drove engagement on Twitter. Again, we saw that just yesterday in the Adam silver announcement. So, we had a wealth of data that showed us that.

As we took our twitter and tv strategy out to market, there has been an ever growing wealth of 3rd party research, from Fox research, Nielsen and others, that show causal relationship between Twitter and tune-in to TV. In fact, the Nielsen research showed specifically there were 3 things that drove TV ratings. Those were last year’s rating, ad spend for promoting that program, and Twitter.

Quintanilla:  So he’s wrong? Wurtzel’s wrong? Costolo: I would say that we feel very good about the strategy since the 3rd party data backs it up.  And NBC is a great partner of ours and continue to work even more driving even more unique content into our platform and Twitter reinforcing that content back to NBC.

Now that Twitter’s a public company it’s hard for them to ignore jabs like this but the truth is it’s a complicated discussion. Wurtzel pointed primarily to the Sochi Olympics to say Twitter didn’t improve ratings. This morning at a ShareThis event called The Return on Sharing Summit, CEO Kurt Abrahamson said the following.