Nielsen Out-of-Home Error Was a Big Deal: VAB

out-of-home TV viewing
Undercounting out-of-home viewing could have cost the TV industry billions, the VAB says. (Image credit: Peathegee Inc/Blend Images LLC/Getty Images)

The VAB on Wednesday (Jan. 26) issued a report saying that Nielsen’s error in not counting some out-of-home viewing was a much bigger deal than the ratings firm let on and resulted in billions of impressions not being registered and hundreds of millions of dollars worth of TV ads unsold.

Nielsen admitted to its out-of-home flub in December. It followed confirmation that Nielsen had been undercounting TV viewing during the pandemic. The missteps are fueling efforts by programmers to find alternative measurement providers.

Nielsen did not provide the magnitude of the out-of-home viewers it omitted due to what it said was a computer programming error.

The VAB, which uncovered Nielsen’s undercount during the pandemic, worked with its VAB Measurement Innovation Task Force to study the out-of-home data for eight of the 16 months Nielsen said its computers messed up the out-of-home count.

It found that there were almost 30 billion ad impressions uncounted from May to December of 2021 and that resulted in over $350 million in TV ads that could not be bought or sold between May and November of 2021.

“The only thing worse than Nielsen’s admitted error of 65 consecutive weeks of undercounting TV viewing was their claim of ‘no impact to minimal impact’ from that blunder,“ VAB president and CEO Sean Cunningham said. “We now know that error is tracking towards 60 billion lost TV impressions and $700 million worth of TV ads that marketers couldn’t buy because of Nielsen’s second admitted case of 2020-2021 pervasive undercounting.”  

Nielsen maintained its original assessment of the situation.  "We reviewed the information shared by the VAB today, and while we acknowledge the understatement in a portion of our National out-of-home audiences, we stand by our prior statements that the magnitude of the issue was very small for the majority of telecasts," Nielsen said in a statement.

According to the VAB, nearly 400,000 people were not counted in primetime ratings every night from May to December 2021, the VAB said. 

The undercount was particularly pronounced with sports, young viewers and minority viewers. VAB said that more than 10.5 billion impressions among hard-to-reach 18-to-34-year-olds disappeared between May and December of 2021.

The VAB also said almost 7 billion Black ad impressions and more than 5.5 billion Hispanic ad impressions were not counted during that period. ■

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.