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SocialGuide, providing a social feed for TV

June 20, 2011 |  5:30 am

Social Guide 3

Nielsen Co., the longstanding arbiter of popularity in the television industry, calculates ratings by observing the TV-viewing habits of a cross section of the American public. SocialGuide.com, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based start-up, is taking a different approach: It analyzes what's being said about TV on Twitter and Facebook. That's about 90 million comments made by 13 million people about 4,500 shows on 160 networks.

The result is the Social 100, a weekly listing of the shows drawing the most attention from the wired generation. And the results aren't what you might expect. Last week, for example,  the five hottest TV series in the world of social media were NBC's "The Voice," Nick's "SpongeBob SquarePants," VH1's "Basketball Wives," the syndicated show "Maury" and MTV's "Teen Wolf."

Who knew?

Better yet, why does that matter? Sean Casey, founder of SocialGuide.com, said in a recent interview that the data can give producers important insights about their audience -- what they like, what they don't and what generates a response. Building a community of viewers on those social networks is a good way to boost viewership generally, Casey asserted.

And it's not as easy to gather that data as it might seem.

A little more than 10% of the comments aggregated by SocialGuide are explicitly tied to specific shows through such things as Twitter hashtags or GetGlue check-ins. The rest the company finds through technology that analyzes tweets and Facebook posts.

The Social 100 is just one of the things Casey's company does with the data it collects. Its website and apps (for Apple and Android devices) provide a social-media-inflected program guide, directing viewers to the telecasts that are generating the most heat on social networks. They also add a social dimension to each show by aggregating all the latest commentary about it on Facebook and Twitter. That stream can be narrowed to display just comments from one's sources on Facebook and Twitter or just from people associated with the show (which, in the case of sports, includes tweets from athletes).

Casey called it "a real-time social landscape of what's happening on TV." His hope is that viewers will run the apps -- which enable people to post, reply to and share comments -- while they watch TV. That sort of multitasking is becoming increasingly common. According to Casey, two-thirds of TV viewers are also on their phone, laptop or tablet computer.

For TV viewers, SocialGuide fits into the expanding category of what I call "social curation" sites -- services that tap social networks to help consumers pick needles out of a haystack of programming. Casey said the data the company collects could be used to reveal "what people who are interesting to you are watching and talking about," right at that moment. For now, though, the app makes it easy to find the shows avid posters on Twitter and Facebook happen to be watching.

The latter is a pretty good proxy for a show's appeal, Casey said. Although a new show may inspire a wave of both positive and negative tweets about its premiere, he said, the people who keep commenting in later weeks "are doing so because they like the show."

For the industry, meanwhile, the Social 100 reminds me of BigChampagne's Ultimate Chart, which tries to gauge the real strength of a song or artist's appeal by considering music-related activity on YouTube and Facebook in addition to sales data and radio playlists. The Social 100 offers a glimpse into a community of TV lovers that Nielsen's meters don't measure -- one that just happens to be frequented by the 18-to-35-year-old demographic group coveted by advertisers. That seems like a place TV producers and networks ought to be paying attention to, although it remains to be seen whether Casey's company is the one that takes them there.

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-- Jon Healey

Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion Manufacturing Division.

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