OPINION17 February 2014

Predicting success: Twitter vs TV ratings


Breaking Bad’s final episode was among the most tweeted ever, but its ratings placed it outside the Nielsen Top 10. Colourtext’s Jason Brownlee asks: What are the most reliable indications for TV franchise success?


A recent paper by Nielsen in the US set out to study the ability of Twitter activity to drive TV show audience ratings and vice versa. One of the most interesting findings in that paper was an apparently weak relationship between the size of a TV show’s official audience ratings and its ability to generate big numbers of Twitter messages.

The best illustration of this phenomenon is Breaking Bad, the last US episode of which was allegedly the most tweeted TV show ever. However, that same show didn’t even break into the Top 10 of the official Nielsen TV ratings for that evening. This is an interesting paradox that audience demographic arguments alone do not entirely answer.

Boldly going on

To explore this apparent contradiction, consider the Star Trek franchise as a thought experiment. In 1964, the first season of Star Trek achieved an average ranking of just 52 out of 94 TV shows measured. During its second season official ratings didn’t improve and NBC threatened to pull the show. However, an unprecedented letter-writing campaign organised by a dedicated fan base gave Star Trek a stay of execution.

A third series was commissioned but was shifted from prime time to the Friday night ‘death slot’. Star Trek’s official ratings inevitably slid even further, NBC lost patience and then cancelled the show. We all know that this isn’t where the Star Trek story ended, but the question raised is: If we went back to the 1960s and looked at the data available to NBC, would we see anything that foreshadowed the billion-dollar future value of the Star Trek franchise? Would the official TV ratings point to Star Trek’s future, or would the fan base activity around the show have been a more telling indicator?

Fast-forward to 2014. We live in a world transformed by social networks that can directly connect content producers and brand owners with the fan base of pretty much any field of interest or lifestyle passion. In this environment, we find that ‘second screen’ activity appears to be changing how audiences relate to linear media content – especially TV – so we think that the concept of ‘future content franchise value’ helps us better understand what social media data can tell us about evolving audience relationships with TV, radio, music and film.

The new Sherlock from the BBC

To explore this idea further, we analysed 120,000 tweets generated by the first episode of the new Sherlock series, aired on 1st January 2014. Semantic analysis techniques were used to identify key patterns of attitude and behaviour before, during and after the show. The main findings were:

  • Emotional responses to Sherlock were complex, layered, often contradictory and constantly changing in response to on-screen characters, narratives and action
  • Binary emotional or evaluative metrics such as generalised ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ sentiments can give a misleading picture of viewer experiences
  • Social media fan culture related to a TV show is indicative of long-term content franchise value

This work potentially supports the efforts of media owners to broaden their revenue base from a pure-play advertising sales model to a broader and more sustainable franchise development model. This would include new business development opportunities such as regular subscriptions, online content purchases, merchandising, live events and licensing.

Jason Brownlee is the founder and CEO of Colourtext