Nielsen’s Surprise National OOH Measurement Delay Throws Another Wrench Into Upfront Talks

Stunned executives ask ratings firm to reverse 'unjustifiable' decision

Out-of-home viewing data from sports bars, gyms and hotels helps boost news and live sports' ratings by roughly 10%. Getty Images
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Key insight:

During the ongoing round of upfront talks, media companies were seemingly operating from a defensive position amid economic uncertainty due to Covid-19 and linear ratings continuing to decline—but thought they had an ace up their sleeve. Nielsen had planned to integrate its out-of-home viewing data into the national TV currency this fall, which would have provided roughly a 10% audience boost to many live sports and news events, and, the networks hoped, would help drive up pricing.

But that changed on Thursday, following Nielsen’s surprise decision to delay 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.

Update: On Friday afternoon, Nielsen reversed course, and said it will proceed with the national OOH rollout this fall.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has had a far-reaching effect on the media industry and on consumer viewing habits. Throughout this crisis, out-of-home audiences have been particularly hard hit, with estimates falling by as much as 60%,” a Nielsen spokesperson said in a statement. “This is driven by broad stay-at-home orders, significant reduction in travel, closures of restaurants and public gathering establishments, and other situations that have reduced exposure to television content outside of the home. The recent surge in Covid-19 cases is expected to create further volatility in this space, making it challenging for the industry to plan around this audience segment.”

As some states consider reimplementing stay-at-home orders, “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,” continued the spokesperson. “While a new implementation date has not been determined, Nielsen is prepared to complete the integration when appropriate and will reassess the situation in Q1 2021.”

For now, Nielsen will “continue to offer its existing standalone out-of-home reporting service to subscribing clients, many of whom have used the service to transact on out-of-home audiences since 2017.”

The announcement stunned media companies. Last night, ViacomCBS asked Nielsen to reverse its “unjustifiable” decision.

“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,” said a ViacomCBS spokesperson. “ViacomCBS–along with our peers and the VAB [Video Advertising Bureau]–is calling on Nielsen to reverse its decision.”

As of this morning, no other major media companies have publicly commented about the OOH delay. Adweek will update this story with any additional comments.

VAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham also urged Nielsen CEO David Kenny on behalf of VAB board leadership 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 can 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.

As of this morning, Nielsen hadn’t commented on ViacomCBS and the VAB’s requests.

The move throws 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.

As coronavirus cases have spiked throughout the South and West, “now I feel like we need to wait and see how this works out before we commit to something, because I don’t want to be the agency that commits to a, making it up, plus-five in pricing, and then the world falls apart again, and the media world falls apart, and it’s actually minus-five,” one buyer told Adweek.

Networks had been leaning on the promise of an out-of-home-fueled ratings boost in 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 said: “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.