For years, TV networks have asserted that Nielsen ratings are an inaccurate way to determine a show's popularity. Their case hold more water now that a significant percent of audiences time-shift their viewing (via DVR or online streaming services like iTunes or Hulu). As a side-effect of that, many networks have combated dwindling ratings by trumpeting their social metrics and declaring themselves The Most Social Show of a given night.
But what does being "a social show" really mean and how is that data collected?
One way is through a service like Trendrr.tv -- a 6-year-old company that pulls from Twitter, Facebook, Get Glue and Viggle to deduce which shows are generating the most online conversation.
Topping Trendrr.tv's list of 2012's Most Social Shows is SpongeBob Squarepants, a program I assumed skewed too young to rank so high socially, but as Trendrr spokesperson Meghann Elrhoul explained to me, "A lot of it has to do with the fact it's running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. There are so many more opportunities to see the show since it airs at least three or four times a day, versus The X Factor, which airs once a week."
Interestingly Simon Cowell's competition show came in second on Trendrr.tv's 2012 list, ranking above The Voice and American Idol, despite drawing significantly lower Nielsen ratings.
But finding a spin-able silver lining isn't the only reason networks have begun boasting about their Social status; there are countless examples of a show's online endeavors actually helping to goose ratings.
"Younger skewing shows do well on social, but Hawaii 5-0, which has an older median age, recently did a really good job with their Choose Your Own Ending contest," Elrhoul says. "They increased their ratings and their social by about 35 percent from the premiere."
On the flipside, you have ABC Family's Pretty Little Liars, which roughly averages 2.5 million viewers a week, mostly in the coveted 18-34 demo, and ranked #4 on Trendrr.tv's list of 2012's Most Social Shows. It consistently dominates Tuesday night traffic (a recent episode accounted for over 25 percent of all TV-related conversation online) with much of the credit being attributed to the fact every PLL star maintains a highly visible Twitter presence. Lucy Hale, Shay Mitchell, Ashley Benson, Keegan Allen and Troian Bellisario can often be found live Tweet episodes and constantly engaging with the very vocal fanbase.
That clear correlation is leading other networks to ask their stars increase their social media presence and periodically participate in online "chat parties." In advance of the January 24 episode of The Vampire Diaries, The CW threw a weeklong #TVDParty that culminated in show stars Nina Dobrev, Paul Wesley, Ian Somerhalder, Kat Graham, Zach Roerig and Claire Holt joining EP Julie Plec in live tweeting during the episode. This turned #TVD into TV's Most Social Series of the Week, with 865,000 social interactions across the monitored platforms; knocking American Idol, The Simpsons, Family Guy and Glee down Trendrr.tv's list.
Elrhoul adds that The Vampire Diaries has long been one of the most inventive and successful when it comes to using social media, saying they're not just generating traffic spikes, but creating week-long engagement. "We did a study on [TVD] and found that a lot of their conversation is happening in between episodes. They're not dropping off after the episode airs. You see [The CW] sharing pictures and sneak peeks on Facebook, which builds anticipation and keeps their fans engaged throughout the whole season."
And The Vampire Diaries isn't TV's only social climber, according to Elrhoul, MTV's Catfish is making a serious online impact in its freshman season. But will it crack the Top 10 in 2013? Check out 2012's current leaderboard:
1. SpongeBob Squarepants, *Total Activity: 21,746,338
2. The X Factor, Total Activity: 16,614,869
3. The Voice, Total Activity: 11,135,041
4. Pretty Little Liars, Total Activity: 10,375,944
5. The Bad Girls Club, Total Activity: 9,424,279
6. American Idol, Total Activity: 9,040,514
7. Love & Hip Hop Atlanta, Total Activity: 6,875,221
8. The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Total Activity: 6,200,381
9. Today, Total Activity: 6,171,158
10. The Walking Dead, Total Activity: 6,164,030
*Total Activity is based on all social activity for each program across Twitter, Facebook, GetGlue and Viggle data sources on days of telecast.