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Nielsen Gives ESPN a Break – Starts Out-of-Home Ratings Service

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Viewing numbers for live events are about to increase dramatically. 

NCAA Football: College Game Day-Richmond at James Madison Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Starting this fall ESPN, and other sports networks, will get a boost in their bottom line ratings as Nielsen starts counting viewers outside their homes. The Nielsen National Out-of-Home Reporting Service will count TV viewing in such places as restaurants, bars, hotels and gyms.

It couldn’t come at a better time for ESPN as it fights against cord cutting and diminishing advertising dollars. Nielsen will have 77,000 Portable People Meters (PPM) out and about this fall. They are about the size of a pager that picks up an audio encoding from a nearby television. Right now ESPN and Fox are the only networks signed up for the service.

Nielsen has had it in place since last fall, and after Fox signed up in June, they reported some additional numbers from NFL games that could give a glimpse of what is to come.

The Thanksgiving game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Redskins last fall averaged 35.1 million viewers – the most-watched regular season NFL game in 11 years. Now Fox says that number was 48.7 million when you add in out-of-home numbers. ESPN also reports that the 40% increase shown in that one game is consistent with what they saw with their Christmas Day NBA schedule.

The NFL saw TV ratings drop 10% overall last year.

There are of course questions that remain about the effectiveness of the new meters. First, the pagers pick up the audio encoding, so if the TV is turned down – no rating. Also, as you might expect, advertisers will have to be persuaded that people are actually watching the commercials. Ad buyers already believe that the out-of-home watchers have been built into the ad rates they pay for live games.

There is also a delay of about a week in the reporting of these numbers. But if they hold up over time, you can expect to see more Friday night games, traditionally, with Saturday, the least-watched evenings of the week.

The 2006 Rose Bowl BCS championship game remains the gold standard for college football TV ratings. Texas’ win over USC pulled in 35.6 million viewers. If the out-of-home numbers are used, this year’s game will surpass that number.