The effect of Twitter and Facebook on driving viewers to TV shows is being vastly overstated, according to a Nielsen-funded study of social media habits and television ratings. And that doesn't bode well for Twitter and its plan to be a permanent companion to TV.
The New York Times highlighted the study on Thursday, which examined the social media habits of 1,665 people, aged 15-54, as they related their TV viewing habits. The survey found that just 6.8 percent of people tuned into a show because of a social media conversation. That number was far lower than other, more general factors pushing people to turn on a show, as about 40 percent said TV commercials sent them to watch, and 30 percent said they already watched that show previously. Even the "Couch Potato effect" — not changing the channel out of pure laziness — had a stronger impact on ratings than social media. That's about 10 percent.
The survey does confirm a previous Nielsen study that found social media conversation drives some TV ratings. But that earlier study showed the impact to be fairly small, and this new survey doesn't combat that idea. "[S]ocial media conversation is far weaker than traditional factors, like TV commercials for new shows or our sheer laziness in changing channels, in prompting us to tune into each season’s new offerings," the Times writes.
That's particularly bad news for Twitter, which has been trying to push its value as an engagement tool to the networks. Of people who chatted on social media while watching TV, just 3.3 percent did so through Twitter, well below Facebook at 11.4 percent. That matters considering Twitter's recent pitch to businesses as a partner that can drive ratings. They even recently began sending push notifications to users to let them know when friends were talking about certain shows online. And as the highly-tweeted, but lowly-rated Sharknado showed, the number of tweets about a program doesn't necessarily give it a lift on TV.
The study, too, only looked at how social media impacted the watching habits of people aged 15-54. But those over 55 watch far more TV on average than any other demographic, and they use social media less. The real effect of Twitter and Facebook on the entire TV-watching population, then, is likely to be even lower than the Nielsen-funded study suggests.