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ESPN Says Streaming Boosts Live Viewer Ratings

Viewers are leaving traditional TV-viewing in noticeable fashion, but ESPN says it has found a way to count some of them – and collect money from advertisers in the process.

More than two months after announcing it would start counting linear and streaming audiences in a single group for live broadcasts, the Disney-owned sports-cable outlet said it has seen significant increases in viewing from younger consumers, people between 18 and 34. Using seven weeks of viewing, ESPN said it noticed a 23% increase in viewing by people between 18 and 34 across its total schedule and a 13% increase in that viewership in primetime,, all compared with what the company says is traditional viewership. The surge helped contribute to a 4% increase in overall total-day viewership and a 13% increase in overall primetime viewing, the network said.

Using the metrics “is allowing us to reassemble the consumption that’s happening, and offers us a much more informed view in evaluating what’s working and what should be tweaked,” said Cary Meyers, who was named senior vice president of fan and media intelligence at ESPN in early November.  Networks that don’t figure out a way to use a single-source measure of live streaming and linear-TV audiences are “missing out on a complete view of how different audiences are engaged with your product,” he added, in an interview.”

ESPN has good reason to tout its new efforts. The network has lost a significant amount of linear viewers in recent years. ESPN’s subscriber base has shrunk to 88 million subscribers in the U.S., Disney disclosed in a recent annual report, compared with 100 million at a peak in 2010. And Disney is readying a direct-to-consumer streaming service for sports fans, known as “ESPN Plus,” that is slated to debut sometime in 2018. ESPN began pitching advertisers on the concept in May, during the industry’s annual “upfront” sales talks, telling them it wanted to tabulate ESPN viewers no matter what kind of screen they were using. ESPN has also been selling advertisers measures of so-called “out of home” audiences, or viewers who might watch ESPN on a TV screen at a hotel, in a bar or at a friend’s house.

ESPN said the inclusion of streaming and out-of-home viewers between September 25th and November 12th lent a 26% boost to the 18-to-34 audience for its flagship “Monday Night Football,” a 33% boost to broadcasts of college-football matches and a 27% increase in the measure for NBA broadcasts. The network saw a 19% increase in that audience for the popular talk show “First Take” and a 14% lift in younger viewers for Scott Van Pelt’s late-night edition of “SportsCenter.”

The TV industry has been working in fits and starts to try to find a unified metric that tabulates a growing wedge of viewership that takes place on desktop screens, smartphone and through connected TV’s. But the media sector has yet to hit upon a single plan that all parties endorse. NBCUniversal recently attempted to highlight the problem by convening an industry meeting to tackle the issue. We’ve got a problem,” said Linda Yaccarino, chairman of ad sales and client partnerships at NBCU, at the event. If the industry can’t come together, she said, it risks seeing the current ad-supported ecosystem that supports the industry erode over the next decade. “We can’t leave without a meaningful plan for action and follow-up.” But several attendees said the event fell short of its stated goal of getting advertisers, networks and buyers to start coming together more quickly.

While many TV executives complain about the ability of Nielsen, the company that has long provided standard measurement of TV’s audiences, ESPN’s Meyers urged others to work more closely with the company. “They are probably in the best position to get not perfect, but near perfect when it comes to holistic measurement,” he said. “I think the strategy of working with them is a sound one.”



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