In New Error, Nielsen Admits It Left Out Some Out-of-Home Viewing

out-of-home TV viewing
Nielsen said its Portable People Meters failed to count out-of-home TV viewing going back to last September. (Image credit: Peathegee Inc/Blend Images LLC/Getty Images)

Nielsen is telling clients that it didn’t include out-of-home viewing recorded by its Portable People Meters in its ratings going back to September 2020, compounding questions about the accuracy of its measurement system.

In a letter, Nielsen blamed the error on a software issue. 

“As a result, out-of-home viewing estimates may be understated. While there is little to no impact to most telecasts, we did find larger variances for events that tend to yield larger out-of-home audiences such as live sporting events,” Nielsen said in its letter.

Nielsen did not say now big the undercounts were.  Nielsen began adding out-of-home viewing to its ratings in 2020.

The new issue follows the revelation that Nielsen undercounted TV viewing during the pandemic. After prodding by the VAB — which represents the television networks — Nielsen and the Media Rating Council confirmed the undercount, saying it found that total usage of television by persons 18-49, the key demo used to sell advertising, was understated by approximately 2% to 6% for the February 2021 measurement period. 

In February, according to Nielsen, TV ad spending was $3.9 billion. A 1% undercount would represent $468 million and 6% would be $2.8 billion, the VAB said.

The Media Rating Council also withdrew its accreditation of Nielsen’s national ratings service, the equivalent of Nielsen losing the industry’s seal of approval.

With Nielsen under pressure, the industry has stepped up its efforts to find alternatives to Nielsen. NBCUniversal issued requests for proposals that have been returned by about 80 data and measurement companies. The VAB also has set up a Measurement Innovation Task Force to seek more up-to-date measurement approaches.

“Today’s announcement by Nielsen of more systemic errors that have further undercounted TV ratings for the last sixteen months is unfathomable, both for Nielsen and the buyers and sellers that use Nielsen data as trading currency,” said Sean Cunningham, CEO of the VAB.

“.While the VAB and our Measurement Innovation Task Force have been looking to build back confidence in Nielsen’s core measurement capabilities, the timing of this latest and stunning omission of OOH viewership not being counted across the growing broadband only home universe coincides with our recent discovery of significant defects in Nielsen’s overall plans to include broadband only homes in early 2022 for Local TV,” Cunningham said. “Given the unprecedented scale of Nielsen’s 2021 undercounting and the depths of discovered defects in their core competency on TV measurement, we are greatly concerned that Nielsen One is being built atop a broken and defective measurement and currency foundation.” 

Nielsen is in the process of building and launching Nielsen One, its new system for measuring viewing of programming and advertising across all screens in a consistent and comparable manner.

"As part of routine testing and quality controls, we recently identified an error that caused an understatement of reported out-of-home audiences for our National TV service,” Nielsen said in a statement. “While there is no impact to most telecasts, and no impact to local television, we did find some variances for events that tend to yield larger out-of-home audiences, such as live sporting events. The error has been corrected and Nielsen will be reissuing data from September 2020 to present in order to provide the industry with the most complete data."

Nielsen said the software issues would be corrected starting with its ratings for Dec. 22. Nielsen will also be reissuing its data from September 2020 through Dec. 2021.

Jon Lafayette

Jon has been business editor of Broadcasting+Cable since 2010. He focuses on revenue-generating activities, including advertising and distribution, as well as executive intrigue and merger and acquisition activity. Just about any story is fair game, if a dollar sign can make its way into the article. Before B+C, Jon covered the industry for TVWeek, Cable World, Electronic Media, Advertising Age and The New York Post. A native New Yorker, Jon is hiding in plain sight in the suburbs of Chicago.