ESPN can’t magically make its viewership increase, but it can change the way it reports that viewership in a way that makes the numbers look a little more impressive.
In recent days, ESPN has been combining its linear TV and streaming viewers into a single “total audience” figure, as tabulated by Nielsen. The change represents an attempt to better convey to advertisers how many people watch ESPN events. Reporting total viewers should help ESPN maximize the audience it gets credit for, while presenting itself as popular with younger viewers, who are more likely to watch online or on mobile devices. Via Variety:
ESPN expects the Nielsen-verified viewership of live streaming and mobile to add as much as 5% to 7% in younger audiences, said Dave Coletti, vice president of media intelligence at ESPN. “When you add in out of home, it tends to amplify the audience at the younger end” as well, he said.
Though Variety and others have reported that ESPN will begin reporting total live audience with next week’s Monday Night Football, the network has been using the figure in press releases for several days now.
Here’s Tuesday’s release on U.S. Open ratings:
ESPN’s two weeks of exclusive live “first ball to last ball” coverage of the US Open in New York from August 28 to September 10 averaged a total live audience of 968,000 viewers, up 8% over 2016.
Unseeded Sloane Stephens defeated No. 15 Madison Keys 6-3, 6-0, and the match averaged a total live audience of 1.9 million, the most for the women’s final in ESPN’s three years televising the entire tournament.
Here’s the release on the most recent Monday Night Football:
Lions-Giants delivered a total live audience (TV + Streaming) of 12,741,000 average viewers across ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPN Deportes.
And the recent release on Saturday night’s Clemson-Louisville college football game:
ABC’s Saturday Night Football televised college football’s most-watched prime-time game in week 3 as Clemson’s 47-21 victory over Louisville (8 p.m.) delivered a total live audience of 5,206,000 viewers, outpacing the TV audience for Fox’ thrilling, double-OT game (4,912,000 viewers). SNF also grew its own audience from 2016, as the Louisville-Clemson audience was up 79% from last season’s week 3 SNF game (USC vs. Stanford).
ABC’s Saturday Night Football is averaging a total live audience of 8,630,000 viewers through the first three weeks of the season, the most-watched college football franchise on TV and up 51% from franchise’s first three games last season.
At the most simple, common-sense level, this change in measurement makes sense. Thousands of people watch sports online or on their phones, and if you wish to evaluate how many viewers are watching a game, it’s odd to separate or ignore them.
But combining linear and streaming audiences into one number carries some complications. For one thing, it reportedly will take up to three weeks for the final number to be calculated. For another, different platforms offer different value to advertisers, depending on how ads are presented and how likely viewers are to stick around through the commercials. Some advertisers presumably prefer to know how many of the viewers they’re reaching are watching on television and how many are streaming.
ESPN executive Ed Erhardt said “more than 50%” of the network’s advertisers support the new measurement and that he hopes more will come around “as they see the data and see the numbers,” according to Variety.