Does online buzz equal real-world ratings? It’s complicated

We’ve spent the last several weeks speaking with a bunch of digital media executives in an attempt to figure out how conversations on social media affects their ratings numbers, and for the most part what we’ve heard is, “It’s complicated.” But new data released by Nielsen-McKinsey joint venture NM Incite Thursday seeks to draw a correlation between online buzz on social networks like Facebook and Twitter, and the number of people who actually tune into a show when it airs.

Gathering around the social media watercooler

“Word of mouth has always been a major component in building awareness and interest in TV programs,” CBS research chief David Poltrack told us in a phone interview. Ensuring that people watch a show at least once is a key component to ensuring that they convert to being a loyal viewer in the future. But the world has changed over the last several decades, Poltrack notes: Whereas in 1980, the average new broadcast TV show was seen by half the population by November, the growing number of cable networks and entertainment choices means that now only about 15 percent of people see new shows in the same time period.

Most word of mouth still occurs in face-to-face situations around the company watercooler or talking to friends, but social media has emerged as a powerful tool for networks to get the word out about their shows. Even so, until now there’s been some debate about how effective social media actually is in creating a ratings lift for shows.

The correlation and causation of social TV success

For its part, Nielsen and NM Incite have been trying to chart the correlation between social activity and TV ratings. They released the following graph, which was compiled by analyzing the relationship between social media and television for 250 television programs and more than 150 million social media sites. The results show that activity on social media sites can help provide a lift to shows, especially when the word of mouth starts early.

Nielsen SVP of Media Analytics Radha Subramanyam summarizes the results as follows:

“Among people aged 18-34, the most active social networkers, social media buzz is most closely aligned with TV ratings for the premiere of a show. A few weeks prior to a show’s premiere, a nine percent increase in buzz volume correlates to a one percent increase in ratings among this group. As the middle of the season approaches and then the finale, the correlation is slightly weaker, but still significant, with a 14 percent increase in buzz corresponding to a one percent increase in ratings.”

Not every social success is a ratings success

That correlation between pre-premiere buzz and actual viewership could help explain the early success of New Girl, the new Fox (s NWS) sitcom starring Zooey Deschanel. Prior to its airing, the network created a lot of buzz for its premiere by releasing the pilot on Apple’s iTunes, (s AAPL) Hulu, and through Klout Perks several weeks prior to its airing. And that buzz has paid off in the form of ratings: New Girl has consistently topped all other scripted shows on Tuesday nights.

But not everyone is convinced that social media is a savior for TV shows.

“Social changes how shows are marketed,” Christy Tanner, general manager of, said in a phone interview. “But it needs to be more than just adding a Twitter hashtag to the screen.” That also doesn’t mean that all social campaigns are successful: While some programs — like NBC’s (s CMCSA) The Voice — clearly benefitted from Twitter or Facebook activity, Tanner noted that there are plenty of examples in which shows that are extremely popular on social networks have actually seen their ratings drop.

Take Glee, for example: Although it still consistently draws more social buzz than any other scripted show week after week, its ratings have been down significantly in the early fall season.

But social is here to stay

Even so, Poltrack said the combination of social media and streaming catch-up episodes online is creating a new immediacy in the ability to learn about and become fans of new shows that wasn’t previously available. “If the conversation is on the Internet instead of in the workplace, you can immediately go and find that show,” he said. That compares to the past, when viewers might have heard about a new program but would have had to wait a week to check it out. “There’s an advantage to being very quick as opposed to the slower process of word of mouth.”

With more programming than ever fighting for attention, you can bet that even more networks will be looking to use that combination as a way to get viewers hooked.