TV Upfront

ESPN Bellies Up to the Bar with Out-of-Home Viewing Data

Sports Net Looks to Monetize Untapped Audience in Upfront

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Patrons of Champions in the Marriott Hotel in Boston enjoy drinks and sports on TVs around the bar.
Patrons of Champions in the Marriott Hotel in Boston enjoy drinks and sports on TVs around the bar. Credit: Maisie Crow for The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Every day, hundreds of thousands of TV impressions that occur beyond the bounds of home and hearth go undocumented, which translates into a whole lot of uncredited deliveries for networks that traffic in news and live sports programming. But as the industry gears up for the $20 billion upfront bazaar, ESPN and Fox Sports both say they are about to take the first steps toward making ratings guarantees using Nielsen's years-in-the-making out-of-home measurement scheme.

While there's no hard and fast deadline for when Nielsen's Portable People Meter-derived out-of-home sample to be folded in with its linear TV ratings, execs from ESPN's ad sales and research divisions say the preliminary data they've seen from bar, restaurants, gyms and other public spaces merits the consideration of media buyers and advertisers.

Buyers' openness remains a question, when they currently get out-of-home impressions free or would even argue that those viewers are already implictly priced in.

But ESPN has seen significant lifts in its audience deliveries when those previously undocumented out of home views were recaptured by Nielsen, according to Artie Bulgrin, senior VP-global research and analytics at ESPN.

"The lift we're seeing is actually better than we've expected," Mr. Bulgrin said. "It's a high quality audience -- slightly younger, a bit more female-skewing, and also a bit more multicultural. Out-of-home extends our reach to a number of very attractive segments."

Its flagship "SportsCenter" show has experienced double-digit declines in traditional ratings over the last few years, but the show's out-of-home viewing has grown 6% from September 2015 to March 2016, ESPN said.

ESPN's primetime college football games gained 9% upon application of the data culled from fans in bars and other external venues.

The bigger the traditional in-home audience, the greater the out-of-home lift. For example, ESPN's coverage of the Jan. 9 AFC Wild Card Game between the Chiefs and Texans drew a 2.3 rating in the adults 25-to-54 demo, which translates to a little over 2.67 million viewers in that age bracket. When the out-of-home numbers were added to the vanilla live-plus-same-day stream, the game averaged 3.13 million adults 25-to-54, a lift of nearly half a million (457,000).

The preliminary data suggests that over the course of a given week, between 30% and 40% of ESPN viewers are accessing the network's feed from an out-of-home location. Bars and restaurants are the most popular venues outside the home, accounting for 30% of ESPN's out-of-home composition, while the gym (11%), the office (8%) and hotel rooms (7%) also contribute to the mix.

Mr. Bulgrin said ESPN is in the early stages of discussing the out-of-home numbers with media agencies and advertisers. "We're just starting the process now, but you can be sure we'll be sharing the data with our clients in a very big way," he said.

While it's anyone's guess when the data officially will be rolled up with Nielsen's in-home ratings, ESPN is ready to begin transacting against the bonus impressions. "We've had advanced conversations with certain folks already, and we expect to see [the OOH deliveries] reflected in deals with our marketing partners in this year's upfront," said Eric Johnson, exec VP of global multimedia sales, ESPN.

Fox advertising and programming executives on Monday echoed ESPN's sentiments, saying that out-of-home will be a factor during the summer sell-off, as it looks to monetize this historically untapped source of ratings points.

"We're definitely going to be talking about this in a big way," said one Fox ad exec. Like ESPN, Fox has documented significant out-ofhome deliveries for its marquee sports properties.

Previous attempts by Nielsen to measure out-of-home TV viewing never quite got off the ground. In 2008, with economic headwinds bearing down, the ratings giant shuttered its Nielsen Out-of-Home initiative just months after Zenith Media, ESPN and Turner Sports had signed on as clients.

A year after Nielsen ended that initial foray, Turner inked a deal to have Arbitron's ARB-TV service monitor TBS deliveries in bars, restaurants and other public spaces, with an eye toward quantifying the out-of-home audience for its Major League Baseball telecasts. CBS then signed on to have Arbitron track its out-of-home Sunday NFL deliveries. Advertisers didn't bite, and Nielsen acquired Arbitron in 2013.

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. Some advertisers have said that the Portable People Meter readings are, by their very nature, passive and don't necessarily capture active viewing -- a complaint that has long applied to traditional in-home ratings as well. (Short of eyeball tracking, it's difficult to "prove" that anyone is actually paying attention to the TV when it's on.)

"ESPN perhaps may be more underreported than any network out there, and this is a perfectly valid audience," Mr. Bulgrin said. "We've waited a long time for this."

Nielsen's Total Audience Measurement scheme isn't expected to be fully deployed and adopted until 2017, but Mr. Johnson believes that ESPN is on the verge of getting compensated for all those views that would otherwise go undocumented. "This is an engaged audience that marketers are pining for, and not counting them is, and always has been, ridiculous," he said.

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