ESPN Shifts to Total Audience Ratings for 'Monday Night Football'

Ad sales based on TV, streaming, out-of-home viewing

ESPN said it will begin reporting the viewership of its programs based on Total Audience data that includes live TV, streaming and out-of-home viewing.

The network has selected Monday Night Football as the first show to use the data, starting with the Dallas Cowboys-Arizona Cardinals game on Sept. 25.

Football ratings have been down, and it is important for networks including ESPN to make sure that as consumers watch games on multiple platforms and on different devices, the entire audience gets counted.

Related: Engineering a Monday Night Comeback: Q&A With ESPN’s Burke Magnus

ESPN is working with Nielsen, which created the Total Audience framework to have its ratings keep up with the changing television environment.

Ed Erhardt, ESPN’s global sales and marketing president, said that when the network sold ads for this season, it decided to have the same ads on both television -- ESPN and ESPN2 -- and its streaming platforms. He said all of its advertising clients have agreed to negotiate based on the combined audience number. (ESPN programming on ABC is handled differently.)

ESPN has also signed up for Nielsen’s out-of-home audience measurement, which counts viewing in bars, hotel rooms, summer houses and other locations. Erhardt said more than half of the media buyers it deals with have agreed to include the out-of-home audience in their negotiations.

Erhardt noted that in the digital world, a lot of streaming viewing is self-reported, and that advertisers are suspicious of those numbers.

“With all of the self-reporting that’s going on in our business, this is utilizing a trusted third-party source that the currency is based upon that provides a total audience picture in every way,” he said.

ESPN will report the live TV numbers the day after the game is played. About 95% of ESPN's viewership is live. A week later, it will have streaming numbers and a week after that it will have the out-of-home viewership. Those numbers will be rolled up into a total audience figure.

Related: Analyst Predicts Higher Ratings for Primetime NFL Broadcasts

David Coletti, vice president of ESPN Media Intelligence, said ESPN expects that the numbers should be higher with more viewing sources included. The streaming audience tends to skew younger, which should mean 5% to 7% increases on millennial audiences, he said.

Out-of-home viwing also amplifies younger audiences, Coletti said. With both streaming and out-of-home included, “we’ll see some very healthy increment audience adds.”

This week, ESPN is expecting a particularly big increase in ratings from the same week last year, when the first presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton aired, drawing 84 million viewers.