Sex, Twitter, and Math—And Not Ratings—Are Making TV SmarterS

Ratings don't matter anymore. Nielsen ratings, anyway. That's the thrust of a Wired feature today, and while we may have known that implicitly for some time now, the takeaway is that network execs and advertisers—the people who underwrite TV shows—are wising up to the importance of engagement over eyeballs.

Nielsen ratings have been gospel in TV for decades. So with the shift from traditional TV watching to the DVR and now streaming services, it's taken some time to get out of its shadow—even the C3 and C7 metrics that show how many people DVRed a show three and seven days after the fact. But now, ratings that would have once gotten a cult classic show canned, like Community's 4 million season premiere viewers, are powering some of the most "popular" shows on TV. How? Twitter, mostly.

Well, sort of. The higher ups have figured out that social media matters—you can imagine the average network exec brainstorm sesh, right? Monetize the social synergy opportunity! Quick download! Money!—but now exactly how. Everyone's trying to come up with a solid metric to track that, which might or might not be an impossibility, but that hasn't stopped advertisers:

So far, advertisers don't have a good way to track that viral activity. But many of them are willing to pay for it-even if the official Nielsen ratings don't measure up. "It's more about the social media zeitgeist of the program," says Jackie Kulesza, a senior vice president at Starcom USA, which buys advertising time. 30 Rock, which managed to stay on the air for seven seasons despite perennially low ratings, "was very strong in this area."

That doesn't mean advertisers don't know the score about how a lot of us are watching those shows:

They created campaigns that mimicked the look of the show they aired against-in some cases using the same locations and actors-in an effort to trick fans into releasing the fast-forward button. (There's even a name for these spots: podbusters.) And they optimized their spots so that their brand could be recognizable even at six times the normal playing speed. Indeed, some researchers have found that fast-forwarders are even more attentive to ads, since they're watching closely to see when the commercial block has ended.

The other big takeaway from Wired's TV piece: sex can actually make a show smarter, and not into a dumb, least common denominator. Apparently we're willing to swallow and digest all manner of complicated exposition and plot movement while looking at naked people—Game of Thrones being the classic example. Which, sure, makes sense. Check out the rest of Wired's feature for some of the other ways TV is actually getting better. [Wired]

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