There’s been a lot of talk in the last day about this new Nielsen study that seems to suggest that our habit of live-tweeting our favorite television shows may be juicing their ratings, thereby making us all feel better about ourselves. The bigger correlation is a more logical one–that the more people watch a television show, the more the volume of Tweets about that show increases.
But I was most interested in the breakdown of which shows benefit in the ratings because Twitter is drawing new users to tune in. The big example that always gets cited as proof of social media’s influence is Scandal, which grew into a bonafide hit in part on the strength of the Twitter conversation around it, a promotional tool showrunner Shonda Rhimes and her stars actively encouraged. But the Nielsen study suggests that Scandal isn’t a complete picture of what’s happening in the interaction between social media and television:
The study also looked at the impact of tweets on TV ratings by program genre, and found that the influence can differ by genre. Tweets had the greatest impact on programs in the competitive reality genre, influencing ratings changes in nearly half (44%) of episodes. Episodes in the comedy (37%) and sports (28%) genres also saw significant increased tune-in from tweets, while programs in the drama genre were less affected (18%) by tweets during episodes.
This actually makes a great deal of sense. Much of reality television has a short lifecycle, so if you want to get into an ongoing conversation about whether someone should have been eliminated on Top Chef or how CBS decided to air racist remarks by Big Brother contestants, you have to jump in quickly. Comedy and sports are similarly easy to jump into even if you aren’t tuned into the larger narrative of ongoing character arcs or the implications of an individual event for a season as a whole.
Drama, though, strikes me as a more difficult proposition. It’s still a relatively new idea that creators can and should expect that their viewers are going to watch every episode of a show. And as much as Tweets might tempt you to tune into an episode to catch up with the discussion, and to add some snazzy verbal barbs of your own, if you aren’t caught up, particularly for a show that’s heavily serialized, you’re unlikely to jump ahead and lose context. Skipping an episode of Game of Thrones would be downright incomprehensible, given the number of characters involved, and even in a slightly more loosely plotted show like The Sopranos, if you jumped ahead, you’d lose enormous amounts of emotional nuance and context.
In other words, Twitter might be able to change what we decide to check out on recommendations from friends or people we respect. But it’s not going to upset the basic way we watch different kinds of television.