The Nielsen Twitter ratings: a new way to measure TV popularity

Conventional TV ratings, which are based on a small sample of “typical” TV viewers, seem almost quaint in the era of DVRs, streaming and social media. Now, it looks like even Nielsen(s nlsn) — which has long issued those ratings — is ready to acknowledge that fact.

On Monday, the company announced a new metric called the “Nielsen Twitter TV ratings” that measures the social media activity of a TV show audience. The system is based on SocialGuide, a technology acquired by Nielsen that tracks Twitter activity for more than 36,000 programs and purports to identify how many tweet are associated with a given show. It will complement Nielsen’s existing ratings, which are derived from devices installed in the TV sets of a small number of “representative” households.

The new system is an acknowledgement of how the “second screen” has become a permanent feature of TV watching as Americans use smartphones, tablets and laptops to talk about a show as they’re watching it.

Nielsen’s release is short on details about how the system actually works. It refers to a “sophisticated classification process” but doesn’t explain how it will account for different age groups and audiences — does it, for instance, acknowledge that a show may be wildly popular among seniors but still gain few tweets? It seems likely that, despite a claim to measure the “number of unique tweets associated with a given program,” there will still be some hocus-pocus involved.

The system is slated to be commercially available at the start of the fall 2013 TV season.