The future is ours, 140 characters at a time

Quick—name what the following TV shows have in common: Firefly, Arrested Development, Pushing Daisies, Angel: the Series, and Veronica Mars. Many readers will recognize it as a very short list of television shows with huge cult followings, all cancelled before their time, dumped by heartless executives in favour of more bland, generic sitcoms and reality TV shows. Fans of these cult shows have all felt the incredible frustration and powerlessness of watching the poor ratings take shows off the air that actually have a large and vocal following.

Have you ever wondered exactly how the television executives get those ratings? The answer lies in the Nielsen Family Audience Measurement System. Nielsen Holdings has been around since 1923, gathering information on what consumers buy and watch. Nielsen ratings can make or break a show, but their information-gathering tactics leave much to be desired. Nielsen gathers information through two venues: viewer diaries of targeted demographic samples, and the more technologically sophisticated “Set Meter,” which directly connects to the television and monitors the household’s viewing habits. If you don’t have a Set Meter box on top of your flat screen, or haven’t been asked by Nielsen to keep track of what you watch, then you aren’t contributing to the Nielsen ratings data. Period. If you don’t know anyone who’s a Nielsen subject, that’s because there are only 25 000 American homes which participate in the meter system—that’s a mere 0.02 per cent of the entire country.

It should come as no surprise that the Nielsen system has come under fire in the past decade. Their system fails to actually measure statistically random samples; the data is discarded if a program is recorded for later replay on a PVR, and the Internet versions of TV shows aren’t counted at all. Nielsen is also rapidly becoming obsolete; paid cable channels like HBO and AMC are taking television to the level of high art, with critically acclaimed shows like Game of Thrones and Mad Men; furthermore, online services like Netflix have had huge successes in their own original programming—including bringing back Arrested Development for a final season. If that’s not a ‘take that’ to traditional broadcasting, I don’t know what is.

But I see a light at the end of the tunnel. The popularity of Netflix programming is one beacon, and Nielsen recently announced another: they have teamed up with everyone’s favourite little blue bird to create Twitter TV, which will collect data on which U.S. TV shows are being tweeted about. They aim to track the audience for a show, based on the total number of tweets that mention it. Their first week of operation was Sept. 20–26; on the 23rd, the most tweeted show was AMC’s Breaking Bad; but according to the traditional Nielsen ratings, the top program was an NFL football game.

The result so far has been amazing, because it confirms what we geeks have known all our lives. There is almost no overlap between the two sources of data; in fact, the two rankings on the week of Oct. 27 had zero shows in common. Nielsen hasn’t announced exactly what it plans to do with the data, but this is a huge step for the democratization of television; it’s allowing executives to get a far larger sample size, and an idea of what people really want. So live-tweet without shame, readers (though get an American friend to retweet for you, since Canadian views have never counted). The future of television entertainment is crawling, slowly but surely, into our hands at last.

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