Nielsen Reverses Delay on Out-of-Home Viewing Data After Network Protests

The change comes a day after an industry trade group called the ratings service's decision "untenable."
ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

Following protests from media companies, Nielsen has switched course on a planned delay in incorporating out-of-home viewing data into its national TV ratings.

The reversal comes a day after the data company said it would delay integrating out-of-home viewing into its "currency" data that's used to set ad rates for linear TV networks. Nielsen had targeted fall 2020 for the integration, which would add people viewing in bars, restaurants, hotels and other places to the ratings sample — and likely those numbers a bit of a boost in a time when they are on a years-long downward trend.

On Thursday, Nielsen announced it would delay that integration due to the coronavirus pandemic and the accompanying plummet in out-of-home viewing as people largely avoid big public gatherings. But after a series of conversations with media companies, Nielsen opted to go ahead with the original timetable.

"There has been a lot of dialogue from my leaders to [Nielsen CEO] David Kenny," Sean Cunningham, president and CEO of industry trade group the Video Advertising Bureau, told The Hollywood Reporter. "Given the power and consistency and simplicity of what to us are straightforward arguments for a return to course, I don't know what other option there was."

In a letter to Nielsen on Thursday, Cunningham called the decision to abandon the out-of-home integration in the fall "untenable."

"'Blindsiding' is perhaps the politest way of characterizing how under-communicated and contradictory this morning's announced decision from Nielsen was," Cunningham wrote. "As all of my members have been in frequent, weekly conversation with their Nielsen counterparts, including recent exchanges about this specific topic … the 'postponement' was received as an extremely BAD SURPRISE by my industry leaders, who were stunned by the lack of dialogue about this decision/topic."

The letter concluded with a plea to reverse the decision: "I urge you to listen to your customers and have Nielsen act as a solution provider in our marketplace and not an impediment."

Following the reversal, Nielsen's Kenny said in a statement that "it became clear that we had misunderstood the extent to which upfront deals have already been agreed to using out-of-home metrics. Given the circumstances, we recognize that a delay would cause greater disruption to the industry than maintaining our original plan. 

"I also believe Nielsen needs to deliver on our promises, so that you can transact with trust and confidence. Therefore, Nielsen will move forward with the integration of out-of-home TV viewing into the national TV currency measurement starting in September 2020, as originally planned. We will also provide additional data on out-of-home behavior to help you interpret behavior shifts during the pandemic."

The change "was a consequence of how unified everyone in our business was about how much an impediment it would have been" to the marketplace, Cunningham told THR.

Just how much out-of-home viewing would boost a typical show is unclear. TV's biggest event, the Super Bowl, has had about 10 percent of its total audience watch away from home in recent years, but that's likely an outlier. Large groups are less likely to gather away from home on, say, a random Wednesday to watch Survivor or The Masked Singer.

Still, the additional ratings stream would likely add at least some viewers under normal conditions — viewers that networks faced with cord-cutting and ever-increasing competition from streaming platforms would be happy to count. 

July 10, 2:05 p.m. Updated throughout with Nielsen reversing course to include out-of-home viewing in national data in the fall.