On Monday, Nielsen unveiled its much-anticipated Twitter TV ratings, showing which television shows had the greatest reach on the social networking platform. The report heightened the already deafening buzz surrounding Twitter, which, as it nears an IPO, has been stressing its cozy relationship with TV and the ad revenue that it generates from that relationship.
But the findings ultimately confirmed what many in Hollywood have long suspected: Twitter's reach is limited to a relatively small pool of fans when it comes to overall television viewership. For example, some of the most-watched shows in TV, such as The Big Bang Theory and NCIS, each of which regularly draws 20 million viewers, are small-fry when it comes to Twitter. Neither made the top 10 list of most-tweeted shows, which for the week of Sept. 30-Oct. 6, was dominated by reality TV shows such as The X Factor (7 million viewers) and shows that skewed toward young females (Twitter's biggest demo), such as The Vampire Diaries (2.6 million viewers) and Glee (4.5 million viewers).
A few shows, such as Breaking Bad, are popular both in the ratings and on Twitter.
None of this is news to broadcast network executives. As Dave Poltrack, chief research officer at CBS, told Fast Company: "The fact is that it's a very small percentage of the people in the country who participate in the Twitter phenomenon. The total amount of discussion about TV programming on a daily basis, most of that takes place by word of mouth—face-to-face conversations and typical conversations. Even if you look at online social communication, Facebook accounts for far more activity than Twitter does.
"From what we glean from our own numbers, the online conversations on Facebook are much more highly correlated with ratings than the Twitter conversations are."
According to Poltrack, just 10% of the TV-viewing population tweets while watching, as opposed to the 35% to 50% that boosters want to claim.
This, he says, accounts for why a movie like Sharknado managed to become a Twitter phenomenon last summer, yet failed to score high ratings.
Preston Beckman, Fox's longtime scheduling chief who is now a consultant for the network, voiced similar skepticism toward the causal relationship between tweeting and ratings. "I think it maybe adds a tenth of a rating point. I don't think it's significant."
Beckman did allow, though, that "live events like awards shows—the Emmys, Oscars, and Grammys—is an area were Twitter is a way to build a large community that discusses the event while it's happening.
"It's a way to really connect to the fans of the shows and to hear what they think of shows. So that's a value. But I think we build it up—like writing an article about it makes it seem like it's probably more important than it is.
"It sounds good. It's cool. It's social media. It's what we're supposed to be talking about."
Still, even Twitter's biggest skeptics in Hollywood are not totally dismissing it. "It's a phenomenon, a growing phenomenon," said Poltrack, who described Twitter's largest demo as "younger females who tend to watch reality shows.
"And these are younger viewers that you want to capture, so we are very much focussed on this. Among the people who participate in (Twitter), it is enhancing the viewing experience and creating more of an appointment kind of experience. It's getting them to watch live more than on the DVR, which is something we want."
Ultimately, people like Poltrack want more. Of the new Nielsen numbers, he said, "That's fine, because it tells you something about what 10% of the population is doing. But it's not enough. We want to know what the other 90% is doing."