An investigation by Nielsen, the name most clearly associated with TV ratings in the U.S., suggests that Twitter really can drive ratings up. The New York Times calls this a "first-of-its-kind" study of how Twitter causes people to actually engage in watching particular TV shows, but the results are being taken with a grain of salt.
Nielsen looked at Twitter's timeline and tried to correlate it on a minute-by-minute basis with Nielsen's own prime time ratings for 221 episodes of mainstream shows. Apparently Nielsen's data showed that Twitter caused a "significant increase" in ratings 29% of the time.
A 30% influence on ratings is nothing to scoff at, and suggests Twitter exerts dramatic power over what people watch. But the New York Times is skeptical, and for good reason. Twitter and Nielsen are partners trying to promote a new ratings scale called the Nielsen Twitter TV Rating. Analysts would want to compare a 30% influence with other forms of TV ratings influencers like newspaper review columns or big-spend PR campaigns. Also, Nielsen's study is blind to the influence Twitter has on TV show watching that isn't captured by Nielsen's ratings. But we can probably say Twitter is more influential on how we watch TV than even the TV ratings makers are prepared to admit—something industry executives like the producer of Wife Swap, Stephen Lambert, already know.
The study backs up an earlier one, which was another Nielsen product.
[Image: Flickr user Claudio Matsuoka]