For a while now, the link between a show’s popularity on Twitter and actual TV ratings has been purely anecdotal, primarily discussed at very boring cocktail parties and when justifying a Sharknado sequel. Yet finally, there’s research data establishing a murky correlation that can be held up as evidence of causation, and justify all the hours networks spend crafting those hashtags to display during your favorite shows. Nielsen conducted an independent study of 221 broadcast primetime episodes, comparing their live TV ratings to the number of tweets about them using their own SocialGuide—an application that “identifies, captures and analyzes conversation on Twitter in real time,” even as its mom tells it again to turn that off at the table—then shared their findings with an indifferent world, just like on Twitter.
The result, after SocialGuide told its mom under its breath to fuck off: Nielsen found that a show’s ratings popularity had a “meaningful impact” on its related Twitter activity in 48 percent of the episodes surveyed. Slightly more interestingly, it found that 29 percent of the programs saw “significant changes” in their ratings due to the volume of tweets. Not surprisingly, the reality competition genre sees the greatest changes in the numbers of people allegedly tuning in because of Twitter—followed by comedy, sports, and then drama—as America rushes to the sound of schadenfreude like the clang of a dinner bell.
Though all of this “significance” and “meaningfulness” still isn’t exactly quantifiable, merely somewhat identifiable, Nielsen believes it enough to declare “causal influence indicating that a spike in TV ratings can increase the volume of tweets, and, conversely, a spike in tweets can increase tune-in.” Of course, as Entertainment Weekly points out, Twitter users represent a fairly narrow demographic dominated by adults 18 to 29, and are therefore not an accurate representation of the overall TV audience. It’s also worth noting that many of them like things that are awful and have spent most of today talking about #HowToResistSex, so maybe don't go basing your programming decisions around them, please.