Why the Nielsen Twitter ratings might harm more than help TV fans

As someone who has livetweeted his fair share of shows over the years, most of what follows might seem fairly hypocritical. And that’s fine. We’re going to talk about degrees rather than pure principle today, since I’m not calling for the abolition of the act. But it’s worth thinking about it in light of the first Nielsen Twitter ratings, which pushed “Scandal” to the top of its first weekly list. That’s a show I like quite a bit, have covered in the past, and continue to tweet about during initial East Coast airings. Given the sheer amount of feedback I get on those tweets, it makes sense that “Scandal” would be high on the Nielsen Twitter rankings. But what are these rankings really measuring, and how might this shift the act of audience engagement?

It’s something I think about a lot, even though I’m not remotely an expert when it comes to normal Nielsen ratings. But I do know something about engaging with a show on a fan level as well as a critical one, and the idea that certain fandoms are more engaged than others (therefore potentially as valuable to networks as larger, more passive ones) is something I’ve long wondered might factor into to bubble/fringe shows that are on the cusp of cancellation. The dissonance between, say, the ratings for “Community” and the engaged community that discuss it over on The A.V. Club made a certain amount of sense. But what didn’t make sense is why a certain type of audience member might not be more valuable than another, not in terms of demographic but rather intensity. I watch some shows intently. Others I have on in the background as noise while I do something else. Were I a Nielsen household, I would be counted equally for both. Does this make sense?

Short of installing cameras in every living room (which is what Microsoft seemingly wants to do with the Kinect you can’t NOT use with its new XBOX One), it’s impossible to judge intensity based on the channel on the cable box. But Twitter? That’s an area in which it makes sense to do some analytics on engagement. Even before the Nielsen Twitter ratings started, networks (especially The CW) would point the volume of tweets as evidence of fan engagement. Jimmy Fallon deploys a hashtag game every week on his show and brags how each suggested hashtag turns into a trending topic. These might be meaningless to an advertiser (to a point), but they represent some sort of value, largely for those that use Twitter and other social media to discuss our favorite shows. Maybe the Nielsens can’t hear us watching TV. But Twitter can see us talking about it.

Still, the gamification (and gaming) of the Nielsen Twitter ratings in practice has me somewhat worried. Look at this set of instructions, delivered by those that maintain the “Supernatural” fan account @WinchesterBros:

spn.jpgNow, I’m not here to slam the people behind this Twitter handle, nor “Supernatural,” nor any account that tries to use these techniques to push their favorite shows up the Twitter Nielsen ladder. When a system like this is created, stuff like this will always, always happen. “The Voice” started using iTunes downloads as weighted votes during its third cycle, and it was a brilliant move on the show’s part to incentivize certain voting parameters. But we’re only one week into this less than brave new world and already rankings for rankings sake have turned into the paramount goal. Understanding the metrics behind the new ratings means understanding how to manipulate them to maximum effect. The end result? In a perfect world, shows that have engaged fan bases now get a place at that table, one that’s still the kiddie table to the adult table that is the normal Nielsen ratings, but one that still gets mashed potatoes that are still fairly warm. In a more likely world, the act of tweeting replaces, rather than augments, the viewing experiences, turning a certain window of time into a hashtag-laden wasteland of relentless promotion typed out 140 characters at a time.

Why should we worry about this? For two reasons. The “get off my damn lawn” reason is that while I love watching and tweeting shows, I know full well that doing both means I inevitably miss something interesting, if not necessarily important, while my eyes are my computer/tablet/phone rather than the screen. Back when I covered “Scandal” for review purposes, I’d only tweet during commercials. But last week, I know I missed a few looks during the explosive Mellie/Fitz/Olivia scene. The race isn’t just to tweet about “Scandal,” but be the first to note something about that show, or any show. The desire for Twitter firsties is strong, and the more people tweet in this manner, the more desirous that impulse becomes. (Trust me: I know all too well about this.)

livetweeting.jpgThe second reason is that, as noted in the link above, Twitter has an IPO coming up soon, and its symbiotic relationship with television is one of its greatest strengths. But that relationship was built from the ground up, rather than the top down. The Nielsen Twitter ratings give the illusion of power to those using it, but in reality, fans will now be tied into this service, and networks will have a single way to motivate those die-hard, previously unheard fans into doing work for them. We’ve already seen the monetization of fandom in the form of Kickstarter projects such as the “Veronica Mars” movie, but fans don’t get anything out of spending six hours tweeting about a show (per the instructions above) other than the satisfaction of seeing the show end up on The Nielsen Twitter Top 10. For some fans, that in and of itself might be the reward. But it’s an awful feedback loop for fans: six hours is almost as long as most people spend in offices most days, turning tweeting into a second full-time job for those most slavishly devoted.

On top of that, this system doesn’t seem to reward creativity so much as repetitious execution. Earlier today, I dropped a bunch of tweets with the hashtag #OrangeIsTheNewScandal, in which I imagined further correlations between the show after seeing this mashup video. It amused me, and some fans of both “Scandal” and “Orange Is the New Black”. But the Nielsen Twitter rankings wouldn’t have seen any of my tweets, since I didn’t use easily identifiable hashtags. That’s a small problem, but not THAT small: Adding #Scandal and #OITNB to each tweet would have added 14 characters to each tweet. That’s 10% of the tweet. Add in the spaces needed to make them viable hashtags, and that’s another 2 characters. On top of all THIS, how long until every show goes the AMC route and starts suggesting network-mandated hashtags to trend mid-episode? It’s one thing for Jimmy Fallon to start something trending from his own Twitter account. It’s another for a show to display text on screen that literally begs the audience to look away from the show and start typing. The only thing trending in this scenario is conformity.

The fun of livetweeting isn’t to parrot, but add value. To the die I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’ll never understanding why official show accounts live quote their own programs. If you’re on the East Coast, you don’t need to see this tweet: you just f$cking heard it. If you’re on the West Coast? Congrats, you just read out-of-context dialogue. Rather than use Twitter creatively (like, say, linking to an outtake of the scene you just saw, insight from a production designer, etc), it enforces the show’s message through repetition rather than augmentation. I’m already watching the show! You don’t have to tell me what I just saw. It’s like the difference between a recap of an episode or a review. In my mind, the former tells me what I watched, and the latter tells me what it means. There’s no reason Twitter can’t function in the same basic manner. I approach my livetweeting and episodic reviewing the same way: offer a unique insight into a commonly understood text. My tweets tend to involve more humor than my reviews, but the function is the same. Comedy and critical analysis aren’t that far apart from each other in this regard. When done right, the former turns into the latter. I’m not saying I achieve it. But I certainly attempt to do so.

Maybe this is all doom-and-gloom stuff, and I’m overconcerned about something that will essentially be an innocuous non-starter. But so long as anyone in power perceives value in this new ratings system, we’re going to see many attempts to leverage fan intensity in ways that actually work against those fans. Those attempts may not always be nefarious in nature, but ultimately will almost always hurt rather than help those most invested in a show’s success. It’s not impossible to see the television itself being the second screen of the future. And we’ll be too busy looking at other devices to even notice this even happened.