The coronavirus pandemic has scuttled production of TV shows, live sports programs and in-studio audiences for late-night hosts. Now it’s threatening a new measure that might have aided a TV business worried about losing its audiences to streaming video.

Nielsen was slated to add measurement of so-called “out of home” audiences to its main tally of TV-program viewership for the 2020-2021 season – offering hope to TV networks that they’d finally get a better counting of the people watching their programs in bars, offices and hotels. The ability to show broader reach would potentially give the networks the chance to wring more cash from advertisers. There was also an expectation that counting those viewers would boost news programs and sports broadcasts, possibly adding new leverage to everything from CNN and Fox Business Network to “Good Morning America” and “Today.”

To measure “out of home” crowds, however, Nielsen needs to have a large and reliable number of people able to get out of their homes.

“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%. 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,” Nielsen said in a statement. “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. “

One large media company bluntly objected. “Nielsen’s abrupt delay of the long-planned integration of out of home viewing into the national TV currency less than two months before it was scheduled to be implemented is unacceptable and unjustifiable,” ViacomCBS said in a statement released Thursday evening. ” ViacomCBS – along with our peers and the [trade organziation] VAB – is calling on Nielsen to reverse its decision.”

Fox Corp., WarnerMedia, NBCUniversal and Walt Disney did not respond to queries seeking comment or declined to make executives available for comment. Sports Business Journal previously reported the delay in Nielsen implementing the new measure.

Those companies had reason to believe they’d be able to show off more robust audiences to Madison Avenue. Counting out-of-home viewers was expected to give some networks an 11% boost for sports broadcasts and a 7% lift for news programs.  CBS, which is schedule to broadcast Super Bowl LIII in 2021, had been anticipating an increase of between 10% and 12% in total viewership for the game, if not more  – a prediction it has no doubt been using in its quest to enlist sponsors for the gridiron classic.

At a time when more TV viewers are prone to toggle over to a streaming-video hub like Netflix or Hulu, the out-of-home counting could be critical. The media companies are at present enmeshed in a molasses-slow “upfront” process, their annual effort to sell the bulk of their ad inventory for the coming season. Advertisers have called for significant cuts in the rate of reaching 1,000 viewers – a measure known as a CPM that is integral to these talks. Those rates have increased in significant fashion over the last several years, and some TV sponsors believe the current pandemic is laying bare many of TV’s problems -and necessitates a recalibration of its economics.

Nielsen and the networks have been working on out-of-home methodology for more than a decade. In 2008, the measurement company unveiled what it called a stand-alone offering that would monitor out of home viewing in Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and New York. Six years later, it announced it had quantified a meaningful lift in audience – 7% to 9%  in viewers of news programs – due to out of home measurement. Nearly a decade later, in 2017, Nielsen struck a deal with CNN and Turner Sports that would give the outlets credit for out of home viewership. ESPN and Fox Sports had already signed up for the service. In the past, some media companies have negotiated on their own to include out of home viewers in specific pacts with advertisers.

Disney’s ESPN nudged things further during the “upfront” ad sales season of 2017, telling advertisers it intended to sell a “total live audience” measure for game broadcasts that would included linear TV and streaming audiences. The network also offered to do business incorporating a Nielsen out of home measure.

One network, frustrated by the industry’s inability to move more quickly, has already pursued its own methods. In 2015, NBCUniversal’s CNBC business-news outlet said it planned to stop using Nielsen to measure the audience for its daytime schedule, which is watched heavily by Wall Streeters and corporate executives in offices, on trading floors and during travel. The network, which has relied instead on surveys of the daytime media habits of investors and financial advisers by market-research firm Cogent Reports to set rates with sponsors, has yet to return to the traditional system.

Nielsen says it 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 measurement company says “Fall 2020 is not the ideal time to integrate this measurement into currency,” and indicates it ” is prepared to complete the integration when appropriate and will reassess the situation in Q1 2021.”

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