Is Every Bar Patron And Gym Goer Now An ESPN Viewer?


Nielsen plans to include “out-of-home” ratings, in an attempt to capture the total TV audience more accurately. That would be a big deal for sports networks. ESPN, per Ad Age, estimates 30 to 40 percent of its audience consumes the network outside the home. Fox would also stand to benefit.

While the total sports audience is surely under reported by the in-home Nielsen ratings, methods to get a handle on that seem a bit specious. (There are also some questions about the methodology of how in-home viewership metrics are tabulated.)

The question for advertisers, in a public setting, is who is viewing the television and how valuable that is. Is everyone drinking at a bar, eating at a restaurant, or working out on an elliptical machine near a television an “ESPN viewer.” Is everyone trapped at an airport gate a “CNN viewer?” Are even those actively engaged in a public setting fixated on the commercials or even hearing the audio?

This seems like a hard thing to measure with any accuracy. It is. Nielsen’s method for gathering the data sounds both imperfect and creepy. In Capitalist America, the TV watches you.

"Under the current system, Nielsen collects its out of home data via a portable device that detects a special cue tone embedded in the ESPN signal, which indicates that a panelist is in close proximity to a TV displaying the network’s programming."

The numbers don’t need to be scientific. What matters is whether advertisers will buy it. But, we’d imagine numbers important moving forward are more tangible, such as how many people are streaming content on phones.

This could actually be an even more robust growth area for ESPN than un-counted television viewership metrics, which they’ve presumably been pitching advertisers on for years and years. For example, the silver lining in ESPN’s ratings debacle from airing the CFB playoffs on New Year’s Eve was that digital numbers were purportedly up big-time.

Anecdotally, MLB and ESPN have the best streaming functionality and reliability right now. More than a million people streamed each of the CFB semi-final games on their phones this past year. That pales in comparison to television metrics, but the question isn’t if these line graphs will eventually converge, but when.

The fact of the matter is, almost all advertising engagement metrics are opaque, and that’s been the case for some time. Unless you are embedding coupons or specified discount codes, how could you really measure the ROI of a McDonald’s billboard or a radio spot for a car dealership or Joe Camel playing pool in a magazine?

Similar questions extend into the digital realm, where Facebook can bestow whatever insane scale of numbers they choose upon your statistics, and then yank them away. How can one discern between someone who automatically downloads an iTunes podcast with his/her subscription, and someone who always dutifully listens until the end? Why is someone who visits our site for five seconds from TeamStream and never returns counted the same in unique pageviews as someone who visits our homepage 10 times a day?

Of course ESPN’s viewership in bars should be an asset for them in ad sales, but any attempts to measure actual engagement levels will be unscientific. Advertisers are just guessing on a lot of this stuff, but that’s nothing new.