Want to Know Which TV Shows Will Be a Hit? Look to Facebook and Twitter

Research shows that social media activity can determine which programs will succeed

4 January 2016

Television programming has exploded during the past decade. According to FX Networks, more than 1,700 shows aired in 2014, spread out among broadcast and cable networks as well as Hulu, Netflix, and other streaming services. All of them are competing for your attention. But what makes shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Homeland” thrive while others, like “Almost Human,” tank after the first season? Social media engagement might have something to do with it.

Researchers from Eastern Michigan University, in Ypsilanti, compared social media activity about a show with its TV rating, which indicates how many people watch a program. Their paper, “Is Twitter Psychic? Social Media Analytics and Television Ratings,” found the two are correlated. More likes and shares equal higher ratings and vice versa—particularly from audiences between the ages of 18 and 49. The article, published in the proceedings of the 2015 International Conference on Computing Technology and Information Management, is available on the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. The researchers did not explore whether higher ratings drove social media engagement, or if more tweets and likes boosted ratings.

The researchers identified social media activities relevant to a TV show’s performance in hopes of providing networks with a better understanding of their audiences and programs, therefore allowing them to increase advertising revenue. Such activities include the number of tweets and posts published per week on a show’s social media pages as well as how often a program is being discussed by fans and followers.

A CLEAR CORRELATION

The researchers started by looking at the number of Twitter followers and the ratings of two TV shows: “Franklin & Bash” and “The Walking Dead.” The former, which had 23,000 Twitter followers, was canceled after the first season. “The Walking Dead,” which had more than 3 million followers, was renewed and is one the most popular shows on television. Those results encouraged the researchers to explore further.

The group identified the official Facebook and Twitter accounts for 38 shows to monitor and tracked each one’s activities by entering the account name into their data-processing program. The program then automatically collected data during the course of five weeks from those accounts, as well as any mentions of the shows from others on social media to capture how often users discussed them.

They removed data that were not relevant to the television shows. The researchers then extracted variables such as the number of tweets, followers, and likes for each program. They then compared the data to the show’s ratings for that same period.

The researchers grouped the results into two categories: viewers of all ages and only viewers between the ages of 18 and 49. Their analysis shows there is a connection between social media and ratings, but the correlation is much higher for the 18-to-49 demographic. For example, the most popular show for that group was “The Walking Dead,” with 31 million Facebook likes and 483 tweets posted on the show’s Twitter account in one week. It had the highest TV rating for that age group coupled with the most engagement on social media.

The most popular show among all ages was “60 Minutes,” which had some 800,000 Facebook likes and 73 tweets from its accounts in one week. However, the shows that followed, including “NCIS” and “The Big Bang theory” continued in the pattern of their ratings being correlated to its social media engagement. 

LESSONS LEARNED

The Eastern Michigan results expand on a study on the influence between Twitter activity and TV viewership conducted in 2013 by the media research company Nielsen, which compiles TV ratings. It found that Twitter increased viewership by 29 percent, showing for the first time that social media did in fact help to grow audiences. Prior to social media, Nielsen relied on data collected from cable boxes and focus groups. With people’s viewing habits changing due to the advent of streaming services and the ability to watch programs on demand, however, Nielsen’s rating system is no longer able to capture accurate data about viewership. That’s why the Eastern Michigan researchers say advertisers need to consider other methods for measuring audience size and engagement, such as social media.

Marketers at broadcast networks, the research suggests, should use social media to learn more about their audiences and to tailor a show’s content—and perhaps future TV programs—to the viewers’ interests.

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