While the television industry now considers social media involvement a necessity, the benefits of establishing a presence on Twitter, Facebook and other services haven't really been shown to include improved show ratings, according to a panel of television marketing executives at the Digital Hollywood conference in New York.
Nonetheless, social media seems to generate buzz for some television shows and may be valuable in non-quantifiable ways. And, at least for a few of the panelists, it also raises questions about the validity of traditional television ratings systems.
"If we can't actually create a direct correlation between social TV and ratings, we see what it is doing in a lot of other ways,"said Gayle Weiswasser, vice president of social media for the Discovery Channel. "Time will tell what the statistical impact is, but anecdotally it's pretty strong."
People tend to see social media as a conduit for letting television networks know the shows they like. But social network buzz around a show thus far seems to have little bearing on the show's Nielsen ratings for television, said Christy Tanner, the general manager of TVguide.com.
And in some cases, listening too closely to social media buzz can be harmful, suggested Michael Learmonth, the digital editor of Ad Age magazine. He pointed to how CBS brought back a show it had formerly cancelled, called "Jericho," based on the fervent response to its cancellation on the message boards, only to have the show not do well on its second outing.
"That was a case of them listening a little too hard to a rabid minority," he said.
The most prominent rating service, Nielsen Media Research, offers a list of the most widely watched television shows in the U.S., gathering data from a statistical sample of U.S. homes. The Nielsen ratings are widely used among television networks as the definitive guide to what shows are popular. They also influence advertising rates.
"We have all kinds of data points on popularity now that are divergent from what Nielsen would say the top shows are in America," Tanner said. The most popular show pages on the TVGuide.com site rarely correspond with Nielsen's top-rated shows. For instance, the most popular pages on TVGuide.com are "Criminal Minds" and "The Vampire Diaries," neither of which are strong showers on the Nielsen ratings.
"I can't say what I make of it, but it is a fascinating set of data," she said.
Whatever the merits of social media for the television industry, the networks consider it a necessity. Within the past few years almost every network has set up an office of some sort for social media, Tanner said.
She noted that in August 2010, TVGuide.com asked 10,000 of its users if they updated their Facebook status while watching television. About three-quarters said they did, up from 39 percent a year ago. "It shows a big shift in behavior," Tanner said.
A network must have a social media strategy of some sort for a new show, said Chad Stoller, an executive vice president with Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborn (BBDO), an advertising agency that counts HBO among its clients. If a show is any good then some people will like it and other people will not like it, and conversation between the two camps will ensue in some Internet outlet.
In other words, the show will have social media presence, with or without the network's help. "You always have a community that you're going to touch and you want to warm that community up," he said.
For HBO's Blu-ray release of season two of the "True Blood" vampire show, BBDO built a downloadable app that could, with the user's permission, temporarily take over a user's Facebook account, changing the user's profile photo to one of a vampire and automatically posting scenes on the user's wall that the user watched more than once.
Whatever its influence on Nielsen, social networking has shown to have an effect in other, perhaps more indirect ways. For the second season of the show "The Real Housewives of New Jersey," the Bravo Network streamed live video from a premier party through the UStream video service.
"It became their biggest television premier event on UStream, and it was also our biggest Monday night premier," said Mari Ghuneim, a vice president of digital media for the Brave cable channel.
The social media impact seems to work best for quirky shows with a small but devoted audience, rather than the popular shows aimed at the large audiences, said Greg March, director of digital media for Wieden+Kennedy. But perhaps social media is changing altogether the notion of what is a massively popular show and what is a niche show.
"There is no possible way that Nielsen ratings are truly capturing what people are watching on television," Tanner said. "The measurement systems we have in place are seriously inadequate."