After Network Backlash, Nielsen Reverses Course on Delaying National OOH Measurement

Ratings firm will proceed with out-of-home rollout this fall, despite pandemic's impact on foot traffic

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After delaying its national OOH measurement, Nielsen said it would “reassess the situation in Q1 2021.” Nielsen, Getty Images
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Key insight:

After Nielsen weathered severe backlash from networks following Thursday’s surprise announcement to delay its national out-of-home measurement rollout—scheduled for this fall—until at least early 2021, the company has reversed course.

This afternoon, Nielsen told networks it will go ahead with plans to integrate its OOH viewing data into the national TV currency this fall, which will provide roughly a 10% audience boost to many live sports and news events and, the networks hope, help drive up pricing in this year’s upfront marketplace.

A source confirmed that Nielsen has told multiple media companies of its decision to revert to the original fall timetable. Nielsen is expected to release a statement shortly announcing the decision.

UPDATE: In letter sent to Nielsen’s clients Friday afternoon, CEO David Kenny said after speaking with clients, “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.”

Kenny continued, “We regret any disruption we may have caused you, your customers and the market this week. Going forward, we are committed to ensuring a more complete, inclusive and transparent process as the currency evolves with changing consumer behavior.”

Media companies were stunned Thursday when the measurement company said it would be delaying the national OOH rollout until at least early 2021, as a result of fewer people congregating in public places like sports bars, gyms and hotels during Covid-19.

With OOH estimates falling by as much as 60% during the pandemic, and some states consider reimplementing stay-at-home orders, a Nielsen spokesperson said in a statement that “with future uncertainty around how the pandemic will further impact out-of-home viewing, Fall 2020 is not the ideal time to integrate this measurement into currency.” Instead, the company said it would “reassess the situation in Q1 2021.”

The reaction was swift. Last night, a ViacomCBS spokesperson said, “Nielsen’s abrupt delay of the long-planned integration of OOH viewing into the national TV currency less than two months before it was scheduled to be implemented is unacceptable and unjustifiable,” and called on the company to reverse its decision.

Video Advertising Bureau president and CEO Sean Cunningham, on behalf of VAB board leadership, also urged Nielsen CEO David Kenny to reverse the company’s “untenable” postponement. In a letter to Kenny, Cunningham said Nielsen’s OOH data has been “stable,” even with the drop during Covid-19, and questioned how the company could say the data is “currently unfit for integration into a single-stream currency product,” but still offer it as a second-stream solution so the industry could continue to transact on it.

“The Nielsen OOH data is either fit to be currency, or it is not. In short, you can’t have it both ways,” wrote Cunningham, adding that industry leaders were blindsided and “stunned by the lack of dialogue” prior to Thursday’s announcement.

The postponement had threatened to throw yet another wrench into this year’s contentious upfront negotiations, which were already in a “holding pattern” as Covid-19 cases surge, with networks and buyers remaining far apart on pricing.

Networks had been leaning on the promise of an out-of-home-fueled ratings boost in their early talks with buyers. Even as linear ratings drop, “they’re trying to hold onto [the hope that] ‘out-of-home will get you to where you need to be,’” Catherine Sullivan, chief investment officer for North America at Omnicom Media Group, told Adweek prior to Nielsen’s announcement.

The argument hadn’t been a persuasive one, she added: “My clients are in no rush to see this market through.”

@jasonlynch Jason Lynch is TV Editor at Adweek, overseeing trends, technology, personalities and programming across broadcast, cable and streaming video.