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Nielsen began including out of home viewers in its national ratings in September 2020 — but apparently not all of them.
The TV ratings provider has told clients it has undercounted some out of home viewers for that entire time. The company, which has come under intense criticism from networks and ad buyers over possible undercounting of viewers during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, says a software issue is to blame for the problem.
“As part of routine testing and quality controls, we recently identified an error that caused an understatement of reported out-of-home audiences for our national TV service,” reads a statement from Nielsen. “While there is no impact to most telecasts, and no impact to local television, we did find some variances for events that tend to yield larger out-of-home audiences, such as live sporting events. The error has been corrected and Nielsen will be reissuing data from September 2020 to present in order to provide the industry with the most complete data.”
Out of home viewing includes people who watch a given program at a bar, an office, a hotel or other places that aren’t their primary residence. Nearly every program gets a small lift from out of home viewing, but it’s more pronounced for live sports and event telecasts — which also tend to be among the biggest draws on broadcast and cable outlets.
The revelation of the undercount comes as Nielsen faces mounting pressure from the industry to update its ratings product for the streaming era. In September, industry oversight board the Media Rating Council suspended Nielsen’s accreditation for national TV ratings following complaints from clients about the company letting its national panel degrade during the pandemic, leading to potential undercounting of TV audiences.
While the suspension doesn’t have much practical effect — those same clients continue to use Nielsen’s ratings — it seemed to open the door for both stepped up criticism of Nielsen and a search for newer and better forms of audience measurement.
The Video Advertising Bureau, a trade group that has been among Nielsen’s most vocal critics, said in September it would form a task force looking at measurement innovations. NBCUniversal also put out a call for proposals for new ratings systems.
“Today’s announcement by Nielsen of more systemic errors that have further undercounted TV ratings for the last sixteen months is unfathomable, both for Nielsen and the buyers and sellers that use Nielsen data as trading currency,” Video Advertising Bureau president and CEO Sean Cunningham said in a statement. “While the VAB and our Measurement Innovation Task Force have been looking to build back confidence in Nielsen’s core measurement capabilities, the timing of this latest and stunning omission of OOH viewership not being counted across the growing broadband only home universe coincides with our recent discovery of significant defects in Nielsen’s overall plans to include broadband only homes in early 2022 for local TV.”
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