SBJ/May 14-20, 2012/Media

Anonymous Twitter account was no hit with sports TV execs

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John Ourand
NBC sent out a press release last Tuesday trumpeting its Kentucky Derby numbers: Ratings were up 6 percent and viewership was up 2 percent.

Good news, right?

Well, minutes later an anonymous Twitter handle, called TVSportsratings, tweeted a different spin:

“Kentucky Derby on NBC: 3.06 in Men 18-49 (-8% vs. last year) & 14.8 mil viewers (+2%). Median age of 60 years.”
A couple of days earlier, the Twitter feed took on Fox. On Sunday afternoon, hours after a UFC on Fox broadcast, TVSportsratings taunted a Fox PR executive via Twitter, telling him to “get busy spinning last night’s shit UFC numbers.”

The TVSportsratings feed, which abruptly shut down last week, tweeted ratings information that networks didn’t want public.
Sure enough, when the numbers came out a couple of days later, the event posted a 42 percent ratings drop and a 48 percent viewership drop from its previous UFC bout.

So who’s behind this Twitter feed? Nobody knows. And we may never find out. At our deadline, shortly after I began posing questions to the feed via Twitter direct messages, it appears that whoever was behind it deleted the account. The final direct message from TVSportsratings said, “Not worth the bother to me. Like I said, I gain nothing from this personally or professionally.”

During its Twitter run, TVSportsratings became one of the most important feeds to follow. It remained anonymous and amassed nearly 8,500 followers. In the process, the owner of the feed emerged as a modern day folk hero of sports media, cutting through network spin to provide ratings information that networks did not want public.

The Twitter feed was under the skin of network executives, who tried for months to figure out who was behind it. One network’s research department pegged the tweeter as a research executive for a smaller network. Another network’s research department believes the person works for an advertising agency.

They all believed the person behind the feed was a middle-aged man who lives in northern New Jersey, based on some of the Twitter feeds that the account followed, like Port Authority and Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue. They believed the person is in the television industry and is a big baseball fan who supports the Yankees. And that his or her birthday is April 6, based on other tweets.

“That a still-unknown individual has provoked such unrest amid some sports PR departments would be a field day for Sigmund Freud or B.F. Skinner,” said Sports Illustrated’s Richard Deitsch, who followed the feed. “One of the most interesting things about this feed is that it’s an example of the power of social media and how an individual can have an impact on the business.”

That potential business effect is one reason why at least one of the networks complained to Nielsen and tried to persuade the ratings company to figure out who was behind the feed.

Network executives believe that Nielsen should have been able to track who was requesting the information that TVSportsratings put out.

“The real question here — and this is where it can get very ugly — is, ‘Is he in violation of his employer’s Nielsen licensing agreements?’” said Vince Wladika, a longtime TV sports PR executive.

Some Fox and NBC employees have challenged the feed via Twitter. After a TVSportsratings tweet last month that said “a 6am airing of Family Matters on Nick (846k viewers) was just ahead of PIT/PHI NHL on NBCS (844k),” Jared Feigenbaum, an NBC Sports marketer who used to work for Fuel, had an extensive back-and-forth with the feed, questioning its motives for highlighting poor numbers on NBC Sports Network and Fuel, in particular.

The question about the feed’s agenda is frequently voiced by network executives.

“Because he remains anonymous, you have no idea what his agenda is,” Wladika said. “Who does he work for? Is he doing this for their agenda?”

Personally, I liked the feed. It provided accurate numbers and gave sports media fans a new way to look at the ratings.
I am curious to know who was behind it. And I hope the account gets reactivated. The mystery of who is behind the tweets is part of what drove the TV networks crazy and part of what made TVSportsratings so much fun to follow.

John Ourand can be reached at jourand@sportsbusinessjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Ourand_SBJ.

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