Live TV's Alive as Ever, Boosted by Social Media

Shows Such as Grammys, BET Awards Harness Twitter to Boost Ratings

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NEW YORK ( -- Remember all the talk about how TV ratings for awards shows and other giant, live-programming spectacles were tanking? It looks like it was premature. And there's evidence Twitter and its ilk deserve some credit.

Credit: Nielsen Media Research
Until 2008, live events were in the midst of a four-year decline on par with the rest of broadcast TV, with everything from the Oscars to the Grammys witnessing some of the steepest live-viewing ratings declines in their respective histories. It was, many said, just further proof that mass media was dying. But in the past year, live events have seen significant ratings increases, thanks in large part to social media.

While its influence has been exaggerated by some pundits, there does seem to be an undeniable link between social-media buzz and TV ratings. Sure, appearances and nominees that have popular appeal and a few well-devised stunts that get people talking still matter.

Brad Adgate, an oft-quoted research analyst for Horizon Media who penned a column for last year called "Award Shows: Special, but Not All That Special," saw the audience erosion of big events like the Oscars and the Grammys as a sign that those programs were a dying, old-fashioned breed of popular culture. Not so, after this year's resurgence, he said.

"Last year was record-low viewing for most awards shows, so there had to be some sort of bounce-back," he said. "Having windows of insight from regular consumers' opinion has its place, though I don't think that would necessarily fuel ratings. The truth is these shows have gotten more entertaining."

From screen to screen
But the rise of Twitter and other online blogs and networks has only amplified those programming basics, turning awards shows, sporting events and season finales into multiplatform media experiences. Twitter trending topics and Facebook status updates not only serve as real-time barometers of pop culture but also extend the on-air activity to millions of potential would-be viewers. Last June's BET Awards, for example, became the highest-rated cable show of the year on the strength of an aggressive Twitter integration and fans tweeting about the show's makeshift tribute to Michael Jackson.

And then there's always the "Kanye effect." R&B star Kanye West bum-rushed the stage in the first half-hour of last September's MTV Video Music Awards to interrupt Taylor Swift's acceptance for Best Female Performance, sparking an online status-update frenzy and causing many viewers to promptly tune into the remaining two hours to see what would happen next. The result? The show's highest ratings in five years -- 8.97 million viewers, a 6% increase from 2008.

As the web's cachet rubs off on TV ratings, Nielsen will be offering clients custom analyses of social media's real-time impact on TV viewing, as well as deeper program engagement metrics. The program could correlate significant lifts in online buzz to specific moments of a live telecast. Nicholas Covey, a director of cross platform insights at Nielsen, said the web-to-TV data should also lay the foundation for the company to eventually measure additional genres of TV programming on a more regular basis.

Tom Weeks, exec VP of Publicis' Starcom Entertainment, said advertisers are still starved when it comes to alternative data, research and analytics, so the opportunity to transact based on deeper engagement-based metrics would be valuable. "As new media continues to be created in terms of the ways consumers interact with it, any new research opportunities that can be conceived will be appealing for clients as they build research across many different vehicles," Mr. Weeks said.

One exception to the rule? "American Idol" in 2009 saw its lowest ratings ever for the series' spring finale on May 20, despite a measurable increase in blog chatter on the day of its airing. While its ratings history seems to indicate that "Idol" is past its saturation point in terms of total viewers, its status as the highest-rated non-sports series on TV remains untouched. The 2010 season, which has seen the introduction of new judges including Ellen DeGeneres, has been averaging almost dead-even with last year's ratings, a sign that social-media buzz surrounding the changes has helped "Idol" keep its place in the zeitgeist.

Oscar hopes
In the meantime, expectations are high that this year's Academy Awards will likely benefit from the same phenomenon. The Super Bowl of Hollywood has struggled in the ratings in recent years, booking its all-time lowest audience in 2008 and its third-lowest in 2009.

The Awards already have plenty of organic chatter. Nielsen stats from last year's telecast suggest the appetite for more digital conversation about the awards is already there. More than one in 10 people who watched last year's Oscars did so while logged onto the internet, nearly four times more than the average simultaneous media usage measured by Nielsen. Facebook received a majority of the traffic, as Oscar viewers used the site an average of 76 minutes during the live broadcast. An additional 100,000 Twitter messages were sent via Twitter, or 400 per minute.

But this year it's actually working at it, having embraced social media for the first time. And it's devised another interesting stunt in upping the number of Best Picture nominees from five to 10, which could make this the most-watched Oscars since 1998, when "Titanic" helped the show nab 55 million viewers.

How much of a boost can the Oscars, set to air March 7, expect from increased online activity? Here's a list of recent live events and other awards and how they were affected by social media.

More than 5 million viewers tuned into the pre-taped telecast (a 73% increase from 2008) as chatter about "Bruno" and "New Moon" ramped up online, while traffic to MTV's Movie Awards microsite spiked 205% over the previous year.

A BET-sanctioned Twitter account, with 40,000-plus followers, and a last-minute tribute to Michael Jackson made this the highest-rated cable telecast of the year, reaching 10.45 million live-plus-same day viewers. also hosted a "Wall of Tweets," collecting all Twitter updates regarding the ceremony, which helped BET claim all 10 trending topics at one point during the live telecast. Traffic to also saw a 100% increase from the previous year, breaking records for unique users on June 28 and June 29.

Kanye West's much-ballyhooed boorishness during Taylor Swift's acceptance speech prompted many viewers to tune into the VMAs' remaining two hours to see what would happen next. Twitter trending topics such as "Kanye," "Beyonce," "Lady Gaga" and the "#teamtaylor" hashtag remained popular well into the following Monday's Twitter traffic.

Perhaps the awards show to benefit the most from social media since the BET Awards, the Grammys' ratings ballooned 35% this year to 25.8 million viewers -- its most since 2004 -- on the strength of a high volume of real-time tweets and a decent amount of pre-show buzz. The Grammys' "We're All Fans" microsite, created by TBWA, saw nearly 300,000 unique visitors in its first month, while more than 10,000 music fans submitted their own fan portraits of nominated artists such as Beyoncé, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift.

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