Why Social TV Still Can't Promise a Good Ol' TV Victory

Tuning In: There's a Disconnect Between People Who Tweet and People Who Really Watch

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If you're looking to take all of your hard-earned ad money and dump it into a sinkhole in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, well, why not consider using social-media buzz about this fall's TV programs to determine how you should allocate your ad budget?

Giancarlo Esposito on the first episode of 'Revolution'
Giancarlo Esposito on the first episode of 'Revolution' Credit: NBC

If buzz is to be believed, one of the most popular new programs of the season will be "Arrow," a superhero drama on the CW, a network whose programs are among the lowest-rated on the programming grid each year. Another is "Revolution," a complex sci-fi serial that will depend on the declining audience for "The Voice" on NBC as a lead-in when previous attempts in this genre (think "The Event" or "Flash Forward") have fizzled.

I'm not going to tell you I'm any better at picking TV successes than the next person. Last year, I thought for sure that NBC's "Grimm" and ABC's "Once Upon A Time " would cancel each other out and fade away. I was wrong.

But indicators by so-called social-TV players aren't exactly on the mark, either. This year's Video Music Awards on MTV more than tripled the full-day social-media response from last year. Sounds great, yes? And yet in the TV business, the program may well turn out to be a disaster. The show lost more than half its overall audience from the year prior, according to Nielsen, seeing its 2011 audience of approximately 12.4 million fall to about 6.1 million.

People may have been buzzing on the web more than ever, but they weren't turning up in the same droves to watch it on TV.

And that may be just the problem with so-called social TV. There's a lot of "chatter" and "buzz," and the like, but how much of this really relates to the hard, cold audience numbers upon which -- for good or ill -- the TV business is still based?

Let's take another example: Ad Age recently began examining TVGuide.com's "Watchlist" feature, which more than 600,000 people have used to list shows they want to watch, for clues about how upcoming new series may perform.

To be certain, it's a useful exercise and could even represent something of an ad-hoc focus group. Yet a look at the most recent list tells us that NBC's "Revolution" is soaring to the top of the "Watchlist" while CBS's "Elementary" has dipped. Meanwhile, CW's "Arrow," ABC's "666 Park Avenue" and ABC's "Last Resort" fill out the rest of the top five. I've already detailed my doubts about "Arrow" and "Revolution." Of the ABC programs, "666 Park Avenue" will have the emerging hit "Revenge" as a lead in (but hold the phone! ABC moved "Revenge" to a new night, where it will have to prove itself against a new set of rivals). The submarine-themed "Last Resort," while viewed favorably, has no lead-in to help buoy its fortunes on Thursdays opposite CBS's "The Big Bang Theory" and Fox's "X Factor."

Meanwhile, I bet "Elementary" brings in bigger ratings than "Revolution," hands down. CBS has only four new programs to promote for the entire TV season, meaning the network has the luxury of focusing its promotional budget, while NBC has something new on nearly every night, a clear sign its promotional budget will be scattered across a multitude of efforts.

Here, perhaps, is the issue. Consumers who use social-media and digital tools are savvy, young folk, likely the sort with a decent amount of disposable income (with enough money for a smartphone or laptop or tablet, at least, and enough free time to spend some talking about TV shows online). Yet the broader audience of people who watch TV is generally significantly older.

Indeed, the median ages of viewers at many of the networks skew toward the older end of the spectrum, and are sometimes even over the top end of the 18-to-49-year-old demographic advertisers say they covet most. At CBS, according to Nielsen, the median viewer age is just over 55, and at ABC, the median is around 52. At NBC, it's 49.3. At Fox, it's 46.2. Their viewing may not be easy to predict by watching a subset of young people in social media.

(Then again, MTV 's median age is just 23, making the social-TV argument even harder to follow. If all the young people chattering about the VMAs in social media couldn't be bothered to tune in, well, what good are the social-media measures?)

Think "Revolution" is going to be a hit? Well, Ad Age 's annual survey of ad buyers' projections for household commercial ratings says "Revolution" isn't going to fare as well by that measure as either of its time-slot competitors, "Hawaii Five-0" on CBS or "Castle" on ABC. For that matter, "Revolution" isn't projected to do as well as "Mob Doctor" or "Made In Jersey," two freshmen shows on Fox and CBS, respectively, that appear nowhere on the TV Guide Watchlist. CW's "Arrow" may be getting buzz online, but its ratings projections put the program somewhere toward the very bottom of this year's household C3 rankings.

I'm not sticking my head in the sand. People are talking about TV with their friends in new ways that could help ratings to one degree or another. But the pool of people participating in social TV remains smaller, and younger, than the broader pool of viewers that advertisers and networks ultimately need.

It's one thing to talk about a party before it takes place. It's quite another to actually attend after the host has spent a lot of money on food and entertainment in the belief you were going to show up (hopefully bringing friends). I'm not convinced the people tracked in the still-emerging venue of whatever comprises social TV these days actually come through the door when it really counts.

Tuning In is an ongoing series of commentaries by Ad Age TV Editor Brian Steinberg on the TV schedule, the ads it carries and changes within the industry. Follow him on Twitter.

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