Battle for 'Young' Viewers: Social TV Shows Where It’s Heading


At the Television Critics Association session on Monday, CBS Corp. chief research officer David Poltrack seemingly dismissed the value of social TV and emphasized the on-going importance of real viewership, not the number of Tweets that a show generates.  He cited a comparison between Syfy's much-hyped Sharknado movie and CBS’s summer standout Under the Dome, according to published reports about his presentation.

Poltrack's remarks raise some important questions about social media and their evolving role in the TV world, especially in light of other current developments.  Did Poltrack know about a Nielsen report (released on Wednesday) about young audiences and try usurp it in his TCA pitch a couple of days earlier.  Or is competitive data overload really changing so fast, even during these summer dog days?  Why do cable shows fare so much better as social TV lightning rods than broadcast programs? And is this week’s brouhaha really all about Wednesday’s revelation that Facebook plans to run “TV-style” commercials starting later this year? 

Tweets and other social TV buzz engulfing Sharknado ranked sixth on BlueFin Laboratories measurement scale last week, while Under the Dome only generated enough Tweets to rank thirteenth.  But, according to Poltrack and Nielsen, the flying sharks movie only drew 1.4 million viewers for its debut and 1.9 million viewers for a rerun.  By comparison, 13.5 million people tuned into the Monday Dome episode airing, and by the time streaming and DVR viewers were added, the show attracted 20 million viewers.

So far, the comparison is merely a numbers crunch which, among other things, demonstrates that monetized eyeballs on a TV screen actually do outweigh social media buzz.  Yet, Poltrack’s remarks – plus comments earlier in the day from CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves – emphasized that the network believes viewership is not just about the overall 18-49 year-old audience (which is declining).  Rather, to hear them tell it, CBS cares about other audience segments and precise clusters within the major demographic.  

The message is that social TV buzz is not a real benchmark of video success. Poltrack did acknowledge that some programs work well with social media tie-ins, no matter what level of viewership the shows generate.  But he also cited a Keller-Fay analysis published two weeks ago that asserts the continuing value of “word-of-mouth” – human face-to-face recommendations – in driving viewership. 

Then on Wednesday, Nielsen issued a report “Understanding Online’s Reach Potential.”  The study’s main points are that Facebook is “a strong driver of duplicated reach, meaning that a marketer could reach the same consumers online and on TV.” Nielsen said that in the 25-34 year old age bracket during primetime, Facebook contributed up to 36% duplicated reach to the four measured broadcast networks. During daytime, among that same age group, Facebook “added up to an incremental 41 percent reach to the TV networks,” Nielsen added.

Not coincidentally on Wednesday Bloomberg reported that Facebook is preparing to sell “TV-style ads” in the price range of $1 million to $2.5 million per day, with guarantees that constant Facebook users would not see the same video commercials more than three times daily. The 15-second commercials could begin by year-end, according to experts cited by Bloomberg.

This flurry of social media jostling marks an escalation of the battle for mindshare and “engagement,” as digital marketers like to call it.  While it’s easy to dismiss the widely followed BlueFin social TV tracking process (especially now that the company – since February – has been owned by Twitter), other data continue to affirm the growing role of social media, both as a viewing ancillary and (pending Facebook’s new commercial agenda) a TV competitor.

For example, on July 29 – the same day as the Poltrack/Moonves pep talks to TCA – the Social Guide list of Tweet-inducing shows included nine from cable and only one on broadcast TV (ABC’s The Bachelorette). Social Guide  (another social TV measurement gauge) identified that four of the top-Tweeted shows that day were on  MTV or VH1, and three were Major League Baseball games  on cable sports networks.  Admittedly, reality and live shows are most suitable for the blogosphere.  And for the demographic that Poltrack seems ready to eschew.

Admittedly, late July is not an ideal time of year for traditional audience measurement.  Yet the confluence of this week’s findings, announcements and grandstanding underscore one reality: social TV will play a bigger role in TV viewing. 

Whether or not “old media” find their niche.