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Nielsen starts tracking how people actually talk about TV: Twitter

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There's no denying it, the last episode of Breaking Bad, which aired just over a week ago, was a major television event. It was all anyone seemed to want to talk about in the weeks leading up to it. And ratings for the finale where the largest the show had ever seen over the course of six seasons.  

But all that momentum still wasn't enough to beat a ho-hum episode of the Big Bang Theory in the weekly ratings.

And that, in a nutshell, reflects the modern dilemma facing the Nielsen Media Research. For decades the firm has been the standard for measuring television popularity. But in the age of media fracturing and video on demand, there is a growing gulf between the shows Nielsen says are most popular and the ones everyone talks about online.

Now Nielsen is turning to Twitter to help correct this imbalance. The New York Times reports that the media research company will start tracking Twitter posts about television shows to provide "a more complete view of the phenomenon known as social TV."

Nielsen announced Twitter TV Ratings last year, but it goes into effect this week. Though livetweeters usually only make up a fraction of a show's audience, the ratings company said they are important to track in order to gauge the broader cultural significance of a television program.

Andrew Somosi is the CEO of SocialGuide, an analytics company acquired by Nielsen last year to help create the Twitter TV Ratings. He said the number of raw tweets about a program are just the tip of the iceberg.

"The full iceberg is the extent to which people are seeing those tweets," Somosi told the Times.

As he explains, 225,000 tweets during the premiere of Grey's Anatomy will be seen by 2.8 million distinct Twitter accounts. Nielsen believes the buzz generated by social media during a show leads to more people watching the same program in the days that follow the original airing.

Some TV executives have expressed skepticism about the impact of social networking. But Nielsen expects that Twitter ratings will soon be utilized in the same way as traditional ratings numbers. The company predicts networks will promote their Twitter ratings the same way they do with their broadcast numbers, to both viewers and advertisers.

Measuring TV in this way will mean a major shift in what shows are considered Nielsen winners and losers. For instance, Breaking Bad, which never once finished number one in the weekly ratings for broadcast, would have finished at the top of Twitter ratings for the week of Sept. 23. That week, 1.2 million posts about the show reached an estimated 9.3 million unique Twitter users. That same week, another unexpected program, Jimmy Kimmel Live, cracked the top 10 with its Sept. 26 broadcast, propelled by a feud with rapper Kanye West.

Just how successfully Nielsen can gauge the cultural penetration of a show based on Twitter (or for that matter convert that data into advertising revenue) has yet to be seen. But there is little doubt in any discerning television viewer's mind that the way the popularity of shows is measured must change.

Wired magazine featured a lengthy cover story earlier this year about the ratings dilemma in modern television. In it, they examine why the most talked about programs seem to constantly be on the ratings bubble. 

"All of your favorite shows are ratings dogs. Breaking Bad, Girls, Mad Men—each struggles to get a Nielsen score higher than 3, representing about 8.7 million viewers. And it’s not just cable. NBC’s 30 Rock struggled to top a score of 2.5, and Parks and Recreation rarely cracks Nielsen’s top 25. There are two possible conclusions to draw from these facts: (1) All these shows should be canceled, or (2) maybe the ratings are measuring the wrong thing."

Lets hope networks opt for the latter rather than the former. 

Photo by Stephen Blower/Flickr