Our friend Brian Stelter makes the front page of today’s New York Times with a thoughtful examination on how the Internet “water cooler effect” is friend to TV, rather than foe:

There are other factors contributing to the ratings spikes: attention-grabbing shows (the Super Bowl featured the New Orleans Saints, a popular underdog), gradual population growth and an economic contraction that some analysts say is leading to more people spending more time at home in front of their TV and computer screens.

Along with those reasons, “increased usage of social media is definitely driving the ratings,” said Jon Gibs, a vice president at Nielsen. He said the Olympic data showing simultaneous TV-and-Web viewing signaled the growing importance of interactivity to the television experience.

Woo-hoo, look at that double-digit simultaneous usage for big events!

Particularly with big live events, I’d even take a sip of the kool-aid myself, but just as with the bit about ratings being driven in part by economic conditions there isn’t any real data to back it up.   It’s fairly easy for Nielsen to report that 14 percent of the people who watched the Super Bowl or nearly 13 percent of people watching the opening ceremonies of the winter the Olympics also wound up going online.

Any hard core fantasy league player always goes online during sporting events for their leagues!  But what does that mean in terms of increased ratings?  We can’t be sure it means anything.

Same for social media buzz in most cases.  It might be great for the Super Bowl,  Golden Globes and the Grammy Awards, but we can’t really know that for sure because there’s no data that directly correlates that buzz to ratings.

Big events are big events and going to have big ratings anyway.  Long before Twitter or Facebook, the Super Bowl didn’t exactly have a ratings problem.  Moreover, what does it mean for The Good Wife?

What Does Social Media Mean For The TV Ratings of most shows?

We don’t really know.  No data.  For all we know, it’s bad for ratings.  “Yeah, I meant to watch 30 Rock, but I got distracted by FarmVille on Facebook.”

The thing with any of the buzz indicators is they don’t typically show progression over time in any useful way.  Were the social media buzz indicators for Heroes higher this year than last?  Probably. Because more people were using social media this year than last!  How to explain the steep ratings drops for Heroes ratings this year then?  Of course, they are easily explained by fewer people watching.

Same for Grey’s Anatomy, which has quite a bit of social media buzz and even a Shonda Rhimes who is pretty active on Twitter.

The Super Bowl, the Olympics and awards shows are things that usually have relatively strong ratings anyway.  Unfortunately for the TV networks there are  far fewer events like that than what’s on TV the other 99% of the time.

There’s no denying that social media is a big deal.  But how big of a deal is it for television?

We still don’t know.

Posted by:TV By The Numbers

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