How COVID Could Stymie Nielsen Out-of-Home Ratings

COVID Impact on Measurement
Cheyne Gateley/VIP

This was set to be the year to include sports bars in Nielsen ratings. Then COVID-19 closed them down.

With 1.2 million new cases reported in the last month in the U.S., many states have kept bars shuttered. In others where bars are open, patrons stay away out of fear. Data from restaurant-industry analysts Technomic projects a 31% decline in the number of active sports bars in 2020, approximately 29,000 establishments.

But that isn’t just a massive blow to yet another small-business sector. With fewer people in bars, the launch of Nielsen’s Out-of-Home (OOH) TV Measurement product in early September won’t be nearly as effective as it would have been during a normal year, to the chagrin of TV networks. 

It’s no secret that live audiences have been dwindling, threatening to upend the lucrative relationship between TV networks and advertisers. As the loss in ad revenue became more urgent, the networks doubled down on efforts to push Nielsen to capture all viewing: in offices, hotels, bars, airports and other people’s homes.

Nielsen agreed and reshaped its OOH product to provide a more complete audience figure. At first, it was unclear if the pandemic would even allow OOH to go ahead, with Nielsen saying on consecutive days in July that it wouldn’t be happening, then it would

The return of the NFL, coupled with ongoing NBA, NHL and MLB activity, would have created an out-of-home viewing bonanza in a normal year. But this is a time where TV audiences have been sliding down due to the combination of ceaseless cord cutting, the suspension of spring sports and the impact of the pandemic on the production of new episodes.

The noted decline in opening games for the NFL, while also a factor of larger societal issues currently in play, wouldn’t have been as steep had bars been able to function as usual.

The greater issue here is the current vicious cycle that bars are locked into. Every time a state tries to reopen, COVID cases spike and inside drinking and dining are struck off the list of allowed activities. This causes more bars to shutter permanently, meaning the immediate base for OOH viewing shrinks.

With it reported that a vaccine won’t be widely available in the U.S. until the middle of next year, this cycle will continue. OOH will be impacted for some time to come, as it will take time for new bars to open to replace the ones unfortunately closed due to the virus. Possibly the fall 2021 season will see a measurable bump due to OOH, but it may be likelier to plan for networks in 2022 seeing the full impact from Nielsen’s new measurement.