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What TV shows are we live-tweeting the most?

Rob Walker
Tech Columnist
Yahoo Tech

Was The Sound of Music Live! the most popular thing on television last week?

If you weigh popularity in tweets – it sure was!

For months, we’ve been hearing about the relationship between Twitter and television. Most of that chatter is about potential: sketches of Twitter’s “vision for a TV-powered, profitable future,” musings about how the service might “save TV,” and so on. Live television and Twitter, we are told, are inextricably linked; at some point, it will become clear how.

Back in September, attempting to answer this question, Nielsen started releasing data on the most tweeted-about television programs, in the form of a new Nielsen Twitter TV Ratings top ten list. There wasn’t much to conclude from that chart’s debut. Now, however, we have a couple of months’ worth of data to eyeball and get some sense of what we tweet about when we tweet about the tube.

Nielsen helpfully provided me with all its top ten lists so far, going back to the week of October 7. Here’s what emerges.

First, let’s clarify what these ratings actually purport to measure — and what they don’t. There’s a raw count of show-specific tweets, starting three hours before a program airs, and extending three hours after it concludes. And there’s a trickier number labeled “unique audience,” which is meant to gauge how many people saw those tweets. The chart only tracks primetime and “late fringe” programming, and leaves out sports altogether (because basically sports would drown out the entire list).

Personally I’m more drawn to the tweet count, but Nielsen structures its list according that “audience” figure. Insert your own skepticism as you see fit.

Per the conventional wisdom that has emerged on this subject (in my September column on the subject and elsewhere) one-off live shows, and event programming, are ruling the charts to date. The 2013 American Music Awards, which aired on ABC on November 24, is easily the most-tweeted show in the young history of this metric: 7.6 million tweets, reaching a “unique audience” of 10.2 million.

The Sound of Music Live! generated about 500,000 tweets, reaching an alleged audience of more than 5 million. Other “events” that registered on the charts include the BET Hip Hop Awards (2.5 million tweets), the 47th Annual CMA Awards (1.6 million), the 2013 Soul Train Awards (417,000), and the 2013 Gold Glove Awards on ESPN2 (41,000). Similarly, contest-oriented reality shows are a fixture on these charts: The X Factor, Dancing With The Stars, The Voice, etc.

But contra the conventional wisdom, there’s also plenty of scripted drama — a category most expert observers seem to think isn’t terribly Twitter-friendly. The Walking Dead has been in the top ten every week since this chart began. Glee, Scandal, and American Horror Story: Coven all make repeat appearances, too.

Meanwhile, a few other less-predictable varieties of programming caught my attention. One is a category that I think of as the Throwback Special – The Sound of Music Live! certainly qualifies, and so does Garth Brooks: Live from Las Vegas (39,000 tweets), David Blaine: Real or Magic (72,000), and Miss Universe (84,000). Collectively, these remind me of the three-channel past, when such programming would have been on the cover of my local newspaper’s TV listings supplement when I was a child. More on that later.

The second category of popular Twitter shows are – well, are shows that I did not see coming. Examples: CrazySexyCool: The TLC Story, racked up 1.9 million tweets when it aired on VH1, and something called Pit Bulls and Parolees, on Animal Planet, made the top ten for the week of November 25 when it inspired about 5,000 tweets that somehow reached an “audience” of 1.8 million.

The third notable category involves the “late fringe” — one appearance by Jimmy Kimmel Live and two by Saturday Night Live.

So, what have we learned from these tweet rankings? For the record, the relationship to the traditional Nielsen ratings is sketchy — the most tweetable shows may not be the most watched, and vice versa. There’s certainly some overlap, but also plenty of anomalies. The crime procedural NCIS is a regular on the real ratings top ten, for instance, but nowhere to be seen on the Twitter charts.

And that’s exactly what’s so interesting about these lists. Twitter is an ad-driven business, and all those articles about Twitter and TV fundamentally turn on the idea there’s money to be made in figuring out how the forms sync up. Twitter is actively working on a method to better organize live-tweets on a certain subject or programming, and suggested hashtags are now routinely included on the screen. This no-nonsense observation leads, of course, to irresponsible but fun conjecture about how television-makers might court tweeters. and these ratings really could drive advertising dollars in the near future.

Since live-ness seems like an obvious plus, and sports and awards shows appear to be saturated categories, maybe we’ll see more Throwback Specials — concerts, pageants, gimmicky performances involving magicians.

It’ll be just like the 1970s. But with tweets.

More seriously, the tweetabililty of live late-night programming, particularly SNL, seems like a genuine opportunity. And conventional wisdom notwithstanding, at least some scripted shows seem to have tweetland draw, whether by design or by chance.

As for what lessons to draw from the social-media popularity of Pit Bulls and Parolees … I guess I’d prefer to leave that one open to your speculations. If you have thoughts, please — don’t share.