Social TV: Social Networks’ Influence on Television

Last August 6, US-based polling firm Nielsen announced a first study of its kind demonstrating—with figures to prove it—that Twitter has a certain level of influence on TV audience ratings. After a minute-by-minute analysis of 221 shows, the study arrived at the conclusion that close to half of them had been mentioned on Twitter and that a high number of tweets had contributed to increasing these shows’ audience ratings by 29%. The study also advances that the level of influence depends on the type of show. The shows that are most susceptible of being influenced are reality TV shows, comedies and sporting event broadcasts.

To conduct this study, Nielsen used measurement tools provided by Social Guide. These tools calculate the influence that social networks have on television and form an integral part of future developments of Twitter, which—may it be recalled—acquired Bluefin Labs in February 2013. Bluefin Labs specializes in the analysis of social TV flows and inspired the research conducted by MIT Media Lab to improve its measurement tool. In August 2013, Twitter also acquired Trendrr, a firm specialised in the analysis of social networks’ influence on TV. On its side, Canada has its own influence measurement firm based in Montreal: Seevibes. An interview with Seevibes' founder, Laurent Maisonnave, on social networks' influence on TV ratings is avaliable on InnovaTV (interview in French, English transcript available).


However, do social networks actually influence how television is consumed? According to some experts, Nielsen’s study is biased because it does not provide a unidirectional measurement of Twitter’s influence on TV audiences. Knowing that the more people watch a show, the more inclined they are to talk about it on Twitter, the opposite would accordingly be just as true: the more tweets a show generates on Twitter, the more people will be inclined to watch it. The conclusion that can actually be drawn on how two platforms are related remains rather ambiguous. And how does Facebook fit in the picture? We know that Mark Zuckerberg’s company is currentlyimproving and adapting its pages specifically to meet the needs of television broadcasters and producers.

And what do our own television producers, strategists and experts think of all this? Do they believe that social networks actually have an influence on television audience ratings?

Paul McGrath, CBC’s executive producer in charge of interactive media, contends that Twitter does not have a large enough pool of subscribers to create the leverage needed to increase a television show’s audience ratings. “Without even getting into the fact that most people don’t have Twitter accounts, and that lots of those who do have Twitter accounts, rarely use it, and most tweets only get read by a fraction of your followers, and that even if it they do get read, only a fraction of them, or a fraction of a fraction, would then be so motivated by your tweet to switch the channel, or turn on the TV, to watch what you tweeted about, even without all of that, it’s still hard imagine.” Source

According to Nadine Mathurin, community manager for Radio-Canada, the scope is “difficult to calculate. No one yet really has the capability of doing it.” This former community manager responsible for the social mega-success of the Un souper presque parfait show believes instead that there exists a direct correlation between social networks and the dramatic increase of the show’s audience ratings. “But that was four years ago and it was a first. (Editor’s note: The first show to get that volume of interaction on social networks.) That doesn’t mean that it’s not important, but the scope is no longer the same,” she adds while pointing out that social TV is now omnipresent and is no longer a new phenomenon.

André Ducharme, the show’s writer and narrator, admits that “the management of V is convinced that social media—Twitter in particular—are in part responsible for the success of USPP [Un souper presque parfait],” although the scope of their influence is hard to measure. However, he adds that “social media have compensated for the decrease in traditional advertising.” André Ducharme believes that interactions with TV viewers have made it possible to “get closer to the public, which is quite rare in television. During the show’s first months, social media were the only outlets that were talking about USPP. No advertising whatsoever and no TV critics mentioned it because they were all convinced that the show would be a flop. Therefore, social networks triggered the show’s popularity.”

Jean-Luc SansCartier, former community manager for Musique Plus and current mobile device and social media strategist for RDS, contends that “it has an influence. Either audience ratings increase or customer retention is up.” He adds that engagement counts for a lot in the calculation. “At MusiquePlus, our interactive shows are watched for longer time periods that others.” The abundant TV offer is another reason explaining why social strategies should be developed for all shows. “There are so many shows that it’s hard to make a choice.” As far as actual influence is concerned, he gives the example of hockey: social network users head to their TV sets whenever the score is tight. He insists nevertheless: the influence is felt under a global approach. “In the case of small-scale channels, loyalty development and retention are what count the most. Gaining 1, 2 or 3 minutes of a viewer’s attention in airtime is just as important as recruiting new viewers.” (Editor’s note: Retention is defined as the time spent watching a show whereas loyalty development refers to the principle of seeing the viewer return week after week.)

For his part, Richard Gohier, producer of Infoman for Radio-Canada, does not believe that an increased presence on social networks positively influences audience ratings. In his opinion, social networks and blogs mainly attract a show’s fans. “New viewers may arrive occasionally, but the show’s fans are those who will visit the blog as well as Twitter and Facebook pages the most.” However, contrary toUn souper presque parfaitInfoman had already been aired for several years before the production crew created its social media accounts. Instead, Richard Gohier considers a show’s presence on social networks as a derived product. “It’s like selling t-shirts. Before you buy one, you need to determine if you like the band. But the t-shirt itself also needs to be fun. Ultimately, it diversifies our product.” He adds that this increased Internet presence has enabled the show to add a new member to its team and, in turn, to increase its content offer: “It generates ideas.” But when the producer gets down to the bottom of the question, it’s when he compares social network and television audiences. Paul McGrath shares the same point of view. “In the case of television, there are 650,000 people watching us, two and a half million during our year-end special. Social networks have their limits.” (Infoman has 100,000 Twitter subscribers and 30,000 Facebook fans.) And he adds: “During a broadcast, it’s always the same 50 subscribers who comment on Twitter. These subscribers are there no matter what. I think that we’re lucky to have a product that pleases this type of community.”

For Micho Marquis-Rose, executive producer of new media for LP8 Média, “a producer who decides to listen to what the social networks have to say […] clearly demonstrates the major influence that they have on TV productions and therefore audience ratings.” He gives the example of the show Les Parent: “At the beginning of 2013, the show’s Facebook page had about 40,000 fans. To develop the community and increase our scope, we deployed a strategy on Facebook in January 2013. In only a few months, without any sponsored advertising, our community grew to over 60,000 fans. That’s a 50% increase for the beginning of our sixth season. This strategy has enabled us to reach a new public that is very present on social networks: the 13–17 year olds (22.3%) and the 18–24 year olds (28.3%).” Loyalty development notwithstanding, social networks would also be a new way to capture a clientele that has been impossible to reach until now, i.e., young viewers who are abandoning traditional TV.


Consequently, there appears to be a variety of viewpoints and there seems to be no written golden rule. In light of the comments issued by industry experts, the direct influence of social networks on television audiences is not always demonstrated beyond all doubt. However, as television networks are hiring “media hackers” (who are in fact community managers with programming knowledge), more than ever before, productions must be present on social networks to instigate a new form of bidirectional communication with viewers, and this social presence is vital to the development of future television shows. Furthermore, beyond its potential influence on audience ratings, this social presence encourages loyalty development and retention and offers the potential of reaching new audiences and market segments.

Patrick Dion
By turns programmer, editor, columnist, journalist, filmmaker and author, Patrick Dion was propelled into cyberspace in 1995. He frequently works on a wide range of radio and TV programs.
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