Live TV Ratings Aren’t Fully Accounting for Streaming Viewers

Networks haven’t been getting full credit from Nielsen for all of the people watching live television through streaming services, the ratings firm acknowledged Wednesday, illustrating the pressures on the measurement company to keep up with the rapid evolution of viewing habits.

Often, live content through an internet-delivered streaming service lags behind the same content being delivered via cable, satellite or over-the-air broadcasting. That delay is resulting in those viewers not being considered live by Nielsen, according to the ratings service and several networks.

“The industry has seen a growing increase in consumer viewing of Live content streamed to their TV sets,” a Nielsen representative said in a statement Wednesday. “However, we found that when Live content is streamed to the TV set, delivery takes longer than that of traditional cable and over-the-air delivery.”

The specific issue causing viewers to fall out of the live viewing bucket is the 25-second threshold Nielsen has for differentiating between a live viewer and a delayed viewer. If a viewer’s online stream is more than 25 seconds behind the live telecast, they fall into the delayed bucket. It was a policy set in the early days of digital video recorders.

Nielsen said it’s working with clients to change its processing systems to redefine “live” viewing for streaming content on TV sets to within three minutes.

The discrepancy is only impacting live ratings. Ads in most programming are purchased on ratings that account for live viewing and delayed viewing for several days, figures which wouldn’t be impacted by the streaming issue.

However, with major sporting events like NFL games, advertisers frequently pay a premium to reach a certain number of live viewers. Sports programming typically has live viewership of well over 90%, and that is primarily how sporting events are sold to advertisers.

In a recent Sunday night football game on NBC between the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles, the number of live viewers in the advertiser-coveted 18-49 demographic that were not counted was 166,000, according to NBC. If those viewers were counted as live instead of the delayed-viewing category of live plus same-day, NBC’s rating in that category would have grown by 2% to 8.55 million.

“As the media landscape has shifted, there needs to be an accommodation to accurately measure live audiences watching Sunday Night Football and other live events via virtual MVPDs,” said Joe Brown, senior vice president of research at NBC Sports Group. “There is a significant undercounting due to latency, which could cost broadcasters tens of millions of dollars on the NFL alone over the course of the 2017 season.”

It’s a similar story at other networks. Fox’s Oct. 15 Sunday afternoon football coverage had 143,000 people in the 18-49 demographic who were watching live not credited to the network. If they had been, the network’s 18-49 average that day would have grown 2.4%.

“We’re not getting full credit for our live viewing and it’s impacting us every weekend. It’s imperative to all networks that Nielsen move quickly on rectifying this issue,” said Bill Wanger, executive vice president of programming, live operations and research for Fox Sports.

While the discrepancy is relatively minimal, the competition for ad dollars and live viewers between the networks is intense and NFL commercials command premium prices.

Plus, the growing number of people consuming traditional television through streaming services such as Dish Network Corp.’s SlingTV and AT&T Inc.’s DirecTV Now continues to grow, making this a more pressing concern for the networks.

Even last year, the streaming portion of viewership was less of an issue. For example, an NBC Sunday night game in November 2016 had only 20,000 viewers or 0.3% of its 18-49 audience not counted.

While sports is the type of content primarily hurt by this discrepancy in counting live viewers, the same concerns arise for any video programming that is consumed live, such as big awards shows like the Grammys or Oscars.

Walt Disney Co.’s ESPN said it has been leading the effort to fix the issues with Nielsen, given that the majority of its programming is viewed live.

“As technology continues to advance and more content is streamed, it is imperative that measurement evolves,” said Cary Meyers, head of research at ESPN. “We’re confident Nielsen is making progress on a resolution in the near term.”

Write to Joe Flint at [email protected]

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