Online social network geared to TV, film fans

The Nielsen Co. wants to know what you think.

The ratings giant has begun beta testing an online social network to give passionate TV or film fans a forum to express their views — with the studios and networks listening in.

The service, dubbed Hey! Nielsen, will allow visitors to sound off on music and film in addition to TV. It will tabulate a popular vote of enthusiasts from which it will derive a “Hey! Nielsen Score,” designed to be a measure of buzz and audience engagement.

“It’s an outlet for people who want to express their views on television, and want to come to Nielsen to have some influence,” said Karen Watson, senior VP of communications and exec in charge of the service. “Joining the network will be a way to let the entertainment industry know what you think.”

Nielsen ratings are the currency on which the business of television is based — and they determine on an almost singular basis which shows live or die.

Because Nielsen families are chosen at random in an effort to craft a sample that reflects the nation’s demographics, ratings are notoriously impervious to the enthusiast factor. The Internet, on the other hand, is fertile ground for enthusiast-driven campaigns to save low-rated shows from “Arrested Development” to “Jericho.”

Yet enthusiasts are by definition not representative of the American population, and some see the danger that a consumer service called Hey! Nielsen would disproportionately attract members of Nielsen families, and thus taint the national sample.

“Are Nielsen households going to avail themselves of this website more than the general population? If so, we have a system that may undermine or create problems with the national sample,” said Jack Wakshlag, chief research officer of Turner Networks.

Film and TV fan sites have become part of the media’s marketing plans. Bloggers are courted and even paid. And network and studio marketers do everything they can to boost buzz through Internet advertising, paid search and anonymous posts to blogs and fan sites.

As the networks work overtime to cultivate denizens of sites like Television Without Pity and MySpace, execs acknowledge it is sometimes difficult to tell the difference between genuine online buzz and buzz created by the marketing department.

Wakshlag said the connection between buzz and ratings isn’t well understood, but one thing is clear. “Shows that seem to have buzz online don’t end up being the shows that become hits,” he said.

Perhaps not surprisingly, “Jericho,” canceled by CBS last spring, is the No. 1 rated show and had double the Hey! Nielsen rating of second-place “Heroes.”

Nielsen said it will police Hey! Nielsen for any sign of corporate interest, or for the rabid fans who may want to make their vote count more than once.

“We will monitor the site closely to make sure there aren’t any unusual activities or abuses and we encourage members to report anything they think is unusual or abusive,” spokesman Gary Holmes said. He said monitoring will included any potential impact on Nielsen panelists.

In addition to the data, Nielsen hopes the site will help build brand awareness among young people that it needs to recruit for its national and local ratings surveys.

“We have to make sure the younger demo has brand awareness of the Nielsen Co. so when we come knocking on doors they know who we are,” Watson said.

The site is in consumer beta mode and Watson admitted it’s still unclear if they can get fans to adopt it or if Nielsen’s clients among the studios, networks and ad agencies will pay for the data.

Nielsen plans to launch the Spanish-language version, “Oye! Nielsen” in January.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more