Social Media Is Changing How You Watch TV


Nielsen’s Outdated Methods

The Nielsen ratings have long been a flawed and divisive system for looking at TV viewership. They place very large emphasis on selective groups of data that only try to look at overall viewership of a specific program, broken up into very wide demographics, such as people ages 18-49.

However, this hasn’t stopped it from carrying a great deal of weight when it comes to networks’ decisions about their programming. TV networks have relied on this metric to tell them how many people are watching their programming, which is then used to sell advertising, as well as make determinations about continuing or canceling shows.

If a show has a higher Nielsen number, then a network is able to attach a higher value to the ad space they sell during that block of programming. Basically, they are able to say “This many people, from these demographics, will see your commercial if you buy time during this program, so that will cost you X dollars.” However, this system is laughably out of touch with the realities of how culture and consumption of media have changed since the rise of the internet and social media. Since Nielsen has no way to account for many of the ways in which people now watch TV programming, such as most digital platforms and streaming services, their numbers are completely lacking in a huge portion of very important data. It also does not account for a show’s critical reception.


Along with this, Nielsen’s viewership statistics have also been missing out on a critically important piece of the puzzle when it comes to understanding the popularity of a specific show—social interaction, engagement, and conversation. These metrics are vitally important to understanding the true cultural impact that a show has, because it gives necessary information for understanding what types of viewers they have, as well as how to better market their own products and sell advertising time.

Despite Nielsen’s track record of being slow to adapt and adjust their methods, things are starting to change, and this will not only impact the entertainment world, but also holds many lessons for social media marketing as a whole.

Adjusting To The times

Fortunately, Nielsen recently announced that they are going to start integrating Facebook and Twitter conversations about TV shows into their ratings system by tracking conversations about programs on these social media platforms. This change embraces an idea that marketers have known for a long time now: engagement is not sheerly a question of quantity, but also of quality.

Yes, there needs to be an actual audience in order for there to be engagement with a piece of content, but the type of engagement happening, and where it is coming from also plays a huge factor in how successful the content is. Nielsen is finally bringing that mindset to how it rates TV shows, and networks are sure to follow suit.

Nielsen Twitter TV

Social media is already heavily used as a marketing tool in the entertainment industry, but it has largely been in order to attract viewership. Now, however, the relationship between TV marketing and social media is going to become more nuanced. Not only will social engagement be used in order to bring new viewers, but also as a way to sell advertising during their programming. Instead of simply selling the amount of people who will see an ad, networks will be able to sell advertisers on the type of people who will see it.

This also widely broadens the potential sample size being taken into account when looking at ratings. For instance, traditional Nielsen ratings have no way of discerning how many people are viewing a program on one TV. This means that one person watching TV on their own looks the same as a large group of people gathered to watch. Now, however, each of these people watching on the same TV have the same ability to affect these social ratings through social media.


While Nielsen’s change in their ratings to include Twitter and Facebook conversations is an incredibly welcome one, it is still long overdue. It is a reaction to years of complaints about their system being out of date and out of touch. While Nielsen has years of being considered a vital industry standard to help overcome this perception, your business most likely does not. You need to learn now how to engage with your customer base over social media in a variety of situations, and use those interactions to better understand and grow your business.

For a long time, TV networks have scheduled shows that they are trying to gain traction for after big events, such as award shows or the Super Bowl, that they know will have a massive audience. Now, however, this will not only be based on viewership, but also conversations on social media. This tactic is something that all businesses can benefit from engaging in.

Use social media to find out what your customer base is interested in. It’s easy to become so hyper focused on your own brand that you forget to look at what other things your target audience is engaged in. When possible, engage in these things as well. According to Villanova University’s School of Business, attaching your business to trending events is one of the best ways to utilize social media because it allows you to use the already existing hype of that event.

Another thing to take away from this change is the importance of small or niche groups. Nielsen’s addition of social ratings is at least partially in response to the trend of programs having smaller, but highly vocal and supportive fan bases. You need to think about this with your own customers as well. Just like the countless TV shows that were canceled due to poor ratings but became immensely popular later once people caught on to them (Arrested Development, Firefly, and Community being notable examples), a struggling aspect of your business may still have great potential. Look at a bigger picture than just sales numbers or total social shares.

See what people are actually saying. If you see that a struggling product or service is still popular in these smaller groups, then you need to ask yourself how you can attract more people to it. It is also important to remember to not ignore this section of your customer base because it helps maintain their brand loyalty. When customers are passionate about something they support, that enthusiasm is not something you want to lose to a competitor because they are unhappy.

After all, happy customers are frequently return customers, and their happiness measures your success.

[Main image: Poltergeist, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1982]

About Zachary Evans

Zachary Evans is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho. He graduated from Boise State University with a Bachelor's Degree in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing in 2013. He writes about a wide variety of topics that interest him, and spends his spare time reading, writing, playing bass guitar, and poorly drawing aliens and robots.

View all posts by Zachary Evans

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