Big Data & the Small Screen

TV watching is getting better! It’s not just because TiVo lets you skip the ads, it’s not just the high-quality original programming from the premium cable channels, it’s big data doing something actually useful.

The lead feature in the April issue of Wired covers what it calls “the Platinum Age of Television,” and it says “networks and advertisers are using all-new metrics to design hit shows.” The Nielsen rating system’s hegemony has developed some pretty serious cracks in today’s multimedia environment. It was best at projecting how many people were sitting in front of their television sets watching a given show at a given time. Once the DVR arrived, Nielsen adjusted its system to count viewers who watched an episode up to a week later. And, this fall it says it will start counting views streamed over the Internet.

But it still isn’t counting Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Roku, iTunes, smartphone, or tablet viewings, says Wired.

Since the key younger demographic is disappearing from the ratings system and the networks and advertisers are left with grandpa in his La-Z-Boy, they’re looking to new information sources: Twitter followers, show-related trending topics, and the like. In February, Twitter bought Bluefin Labs to help it start providing some of these data. Bluefin and its competitors mine social media messages relevant to 120 different TV networks and link them to data on the people who post and the devices they use. Watching while tweeting and posting to Facebook are a new norm.

“Some day in the near future, a show’s tweetability may be just as crucial as the sheer size of its audience,” says Wired. This means that shows people actually care about will rise in the network firmament based on much more than timeslot viewers.

Networks know some shows attract a small audience that really, really cares about them. Think of the firestorm of letters they receive when they cancel one, or how NBC had to get creative with Direct TV to save Friday Night Lights. Comparing “most watched” to “most loved” shows, a lot people are watching stuff they don’t care about all that much. Viewers rate a number of shows—Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Sherlock (OMG, PBS!), for example—higher than the much more popular NCIS, Vegas and others. Which only proves what we’ve always known, just because a show is watched doesn’t mean it’s very good.

With better metrics, the shows people feel passionate about may stand a better chance of survival.

Exploring Further

WiredHow Data Powers the Platinum Age of Television

The Nielsen Company – “New Study Confirms Correlation between Twitter and TV Ratings” -3/20/13

TV.Com’s annotated list of most popular TV shows.