The series finale of “Breaking Bad” garnered 10.3 million viewers on Sunday, as the nation waited to discover the fate of Walter White, terminal cancer patient and meth kingpin. In a testimony to the age we live in, Facebook and Twitter quickly faced off to claim bragging rights for most mass social activity across the broadcast period.
Twitter said that 600,000 people posted more than 1.2 million tweets about the show over a 10-hour period that encompassed both East and West coast broadcasts, according to data from Nielsen’s SocialGuide. Facebook, meanwhile, said that its internal data pointed to three million people posting about the finale, within a 24-hour period starting with the East coast air time (14 hours longer than Twitter’s recording window).
Image via Shutterstock
Looking under the covers, these numbers may not be as impressive as they look on first blush. Twitter is counting retweets in its numbers (simply passing along what others have posted), while Facebook is adding up not just status updates but also friends’ comments on those updates and, perhaps most misleadingly, “likes” of status updates and comments about the show.
Regardless of how social the finale of “Breaking Bad” really was, the trading of stats points out the fact that Twitter and Facebook both believe that television offers big opportunities. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has said that the number of tweets about specific shows can multiply as much as 100 times during first-run broadcasts.
By analyzing tweets about live TV, a recent SocialGuide-Twitter study found that increases in Twitter volume correlate to increases in TV ratings for varying age groups, revealing a stronger correlation for younger audiences.
Specifically, the study found that for 18 to 34-year-olds, an 8.5 percent increase in Twitter volume corresponds to a 1 percent increase in TV ratings for premiere episodes, and a 4.2 percent increase in Twitter volume corresponds with a 1 percent increase in ratings for midseason episodes.
Additionally, a 14 percent increase in Twitter volume is associated with a 1 percent increase in TV program ratings for 35 to 49-year-olds, reflecting a stronger relationship between Twitter and TV for younger audiences.
The study also identified Twitter as one of three statistically significant variables (in addition to prior-year rating and advertising spend) to align with TV ratings.
“While prior-year rating accounts for the lion’s share of the variability in TV ratings, Twitter’s presence as a top three influencer tells us that Tweeting about live TV may affect program engagement,” said Andrew Somosi, CEO of SocialGuide. “We expected to see a correlation between Twitter and TV ratings, but this study quantifies the strength of that relationship.”
Much of the overall correlation is being driven by the rise in media consumption across multiple device screens, according to Nielsen. “We know that 80 percent of U.S. tablet and smartphone owners who watch TV use their device while watching at least several times a month. We also know that 40 percent of U.S. tablet and smartphone users visit a social network while watching TV.”
Nielsen found that in 29 percent of episode instances, more tweets actually resulted in higher viewership, showing an actual causal relationship between social media usage and viewership.
“Using time series analysis, we saw a statistically significant causal influence indicating that a spike in TV ratings can increase the volume of tweets, and, conversely, a spike in tweets can increase tune-in,” said Paul Donato, Nielsen’s chief research officer. “This rigorous, research-based approach provides our clients and the media industry with a better understanding of the interplay between Twitter and broadcast TV viewing.”
Facebook is certainly playing catch-up to Twitter on the social TV front, but in both cases, the intersection of TV and social activity is becoming a clear priority. Consumers do interact with each other over television, and they do want to engage with programs by way of tablets and smartphones: multitasking is a clear trend.
"Our jobs have gotten so much harder. It's strategy on top of social strategy on top of social strategy," said Tricia Melton, senior vice president of entertainment, marketing and branding at cable nets TBS, TNT and TMC, speaking at a conference over the summer.
"Our audience wants to be immersed more deeply," Melton said. "They want the story to continue."
"It's kind of hard to talk about TV and not talk about social TV," added Beth McCabe, vice president and group director of social marketing and technologies at Digitas. "When will we stop calling it social TV and just call it TV again?"