Nielsen: 29 Percent of TV Ratings Impacted by Twitter

Study tries to establish causal relationship between social and GRPs

In a first attempt at establishing a causal relationship between Twitter activity and TV ratings, Nielsen on Tuesday released a study that suggests that the social media platform can in fact have a meaningful impact on GRPs.

According to Nielsen’s “Twitter Causation Study,” the volume of tweets related to a particular broadcast “caused significant changes in live TV ratings” 29 percent of the time.

While Nielsen did not further quantify the impact of increased tweet volume on a given show’s ratings—as was born out with Syfy’s much-ballyhooed Sharknado, there isn’t necessarily a correlation between rabid Twitter activity and actual deliveries—the research giant did break down its preliminary results by genre.

Unsurprisingly, unscripted competition shows were the primary beneficiaries of real-time tweets, as hashtagged conversations influenced ratings changes 44 percent of the time. Comedy (37 percent) and sports programming (28 percent) also seemed to be affected by Twitter volume, while drama (18 percent) appeared to be largely indifferent to social nattering.

Conversely, Nielsen reported that live TV ratings had “a meaningful impact in related tweets” 48 percent of the time. Nielsen did not quantify what that meaningful impact might be, saying only that there was evidence to suggest causation.

“Using time series analysis, we saw a statistically significant causal influence indicating that a spike in TV ratings can increase the volume in tweets, and, conversely, a spike in tweets can increase tune-in,” said Paul Donato, Nielsen’s chief research officer. “This rigorous, research-based approach provides our clients and the media industry with a better understanding of the interplay between Twitter and broadcast TV viewing.”

Nielsen analyzed live ratings and Twitter activity for 221 broadcast program episodes. According to the company’s SocialGuide unit, Americans in the first quarter of 2013 generated 300 million tweets about 9,000 TV shows.

Per SocialGuide, last week’s top 10 most tweeted programs were all on basic cable. The frontrunner, the July 29 episode of VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta, sparked 736,045 tweets and delivered 4.15 million viewers and a 2.3 in the adults 18-49 demo. (Both deliveries were tops in cable for the night.)

But here’s where trying to make a case for causation gets tricky. On Sunday night, Discovery Channel kicked off its beloved Shark Week franchise with the premiere of Megalodon: The Monster Shark Lives. The special was the night’s most-watched, highest-rated show on cable, delivering 4.82 million viewers and a 2.2 in the demo, and while it outdelivered Twitter king Love & Hip Hop by a 16 percent margin, it scared up less than half the tweets (325,408).

The causation study comes on the heels of an earlier attempt to prove a correlation between Twitter volume and live TV ratings. That study found that an 8.5 percent increase in Twitter activity by the 18-34 set resulted in a 1 percent bump in ratings for any given premiere episode.

While many TV executives remain unconvinced that Twitter can really move the needle on live ratings, the Nielsen study must come as welcome news indeed for the social media platform, which is readying its own TV ad-targeting product, Amplify TV.