As Its Cable Audience Declines, ESPN Looks for Viewers Elsewhere

With cord-cutting and other factors eating into its traditional cable audience, sports giant ESPN is trying hard to come up with ways to measure viewers who are watching the network through digital live-streaming services and in places other than their homes.

At its “Upfront” presentation for advertisers on Tuesday, the company said that it will soon offer a single viewership number that combines audiences on traditional cable and satellite services with those watching via live streams and what the network calls “out of home” viewers.

The latter part of the new offering comes from a deal with Nielsen, the audience-measurement company. Last month, ESPN became the first to sign up as a partner for a new service that tracks who is watching the network’s programming in places other than their homes.

These numbers are especially important for ESPN because large numbers of people often watch major sporting events in places like bars and restaurants, but such audiences have traditionally been difficult to measure. The out-of-home service also estimates total viewership in places like hotels, gyms, airports and other public places.

To come up with these figures, Nielsen has been extending its traditional monitoring service, which pays TV viewers to wear “people meter” devices that track their viewing habits. Instead of just wearing them at home, now some volunteers will wear them everywhere.

The devices track what is on the televisions around a user by listening for a special tone that is broadcast as part of the signal. Some advertisers, however, argue that this doesn’t determine whether a viewer is actually engaged with the programming, since all it measures is whether a TV nearby is tuned to a specific channel or not.

Nielsen’s attempts to come up with a consistent measure of out-of-home and streaming audiences have also been criticized by some TV networks, including NBCUniversal, because the process hasn’t been standardized across the industry.

Although they may be disputed by some, once the numbers are included ESPN could see a substantial increase in viewership. The company told Variety that live-streaming and out-of-home viewing boosted its total audience in the first quarter of this year by 12%, and the number of viewers between the ages of 18 and 34 rose by 18%.

ESPN has been struggling for the past year or more with declining numbers of traditional cable and satellite viewers. According to industry estimates, the sports network has lost about 12 million subscribers since 2011.

This decline has cost the company a significant amount of money, since each subscriber is worth an estimated $7.50 or so per month, the highest per-user fee of any cable network.

The Disney-owned sports broadcaster, which laid off about 100 of its employees last month, is caught between a rock and a hard place: Its sports-licensing costs are continuing to rise (they are expected to total more than $8 billion this year) while its audience numbers continue to fall.

Luckily for ESPN, the affiliate fees that cable and satellite providers pay for the right to carry its programming are continuing to increase, which makes up for some of the decline in viewership. But there is still pressure on the company to show that it is reaching large numbers of sports fans, and its deal with Nielsen is an attempt to bolster that argument.

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