CNN Adds Unaccredited ‘Out of Home’ Ratings to Bolster Declining Viewership

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This, for example, the advertisers could have predicted would be big.

At this year's UpFront, CNN will guarantee away-from-home viewers as part of its overall numbers, according to a report in MediaWeek. Basically, this means that as part of the exposure package it promises to potential advertisers, they'll count people who happen to catch CNN on screens at places like friends' houses, airports, bars, restaurants, and hotels. These numbers are hard to specify and are unaccredited by the Media Ratings Council, which is why no network has ever before used them as part of their viewership guarantee.

CNN acknowledges that it's not only focused on its declining prime-time numbers, which were down 34 percent last month — when events like the Haiti earthquake and Massachusetts special election should have theoretically boosted the network. "Our prime time isn't defined by eight to eleven," CNN's COO of ad sales, Greg Alba, told New York. The new numbers, he says, "define the value and importance of CNN content throughout the day, seven days a week," and on multiple platforms.

When you add the away-from-home numbers, which have been compiled by a company called Arbitron since only last year, CNN's performance does look better: "[A]way-from-home viewing gave CNN a 40 percent lift in the core news demo (adults 25-54), while boosting the network's delivery of viewers 18-49 by 47 percent. The lift for the younger demo was predictably amplified, as CNN's overall draw among adults 18-34 grew by 59 percent," the trade reported. CNN, apparently, has seized on this info. "The 18-34 demographic isn't a huge news consumer, but when they do consume news, they come to us," D'Alba told MediaWeek [the key demo for news advertisers is 25-54]. "I often focus on those younger viewers because that's the next generation and they value us wherever they are."

Away-from-home viewership is counted by devices called PPMs (Portable People Meters. Really.) that detect whether a person is within hearing range of a television. "It's a different type of metric than what we use for national television. For national television we are actually measuring people exposed to commercials as opposed to people exposed to the program. There's a difference between the two," Lyle Schwartz, a managing partner at GroupM media investment, told New York. "From an out-of-home standpoint the relationship you may have with the vehicle is different. If you are in a bar you could be close enough to hear the TV set but could be not paying attention to it, for example talking to your friend, with your back to it. We wouldn't add the two together."

CNN could be counting on the away-from-home numbers to be significant when a major news event comes around (they come into play for buyers in advance of major sporting events like the Super Bowl or World Series, where it's known many viewers will be tuned in at bars). But, Schwartz notes, "it's pretty hard to predict a major news event," so that won't be much help to buyers. Still, CNN's D'Alba noted to New York, the boost in numbers when you add in the Arbitron-counted away-from-home viewers from the last quarter of 2009 (when there wasn't a major news event like the Haiti earthquake) is so significant that a breaking news event would only be like a bonus. "Even if these figures are off a few percentage points" because people pay attention to commercials less outside of the home, D'Alba said, "I like what they're saying."

"We feel so strongly about the methodology we're willing to guarantee it. That's a first for us. What percentage of lift we'll guarantee will depend on what the marketplace will absorb," D'Alba said. "I think that most people you talk to would assume that we would have a substantial out-of-home viewership. I think this is a way to effectively quantify that ... I think the industry is going that way. We need to get a better grip on what people are consuming outside of the home." According to Schwartz, though, the industry isn't quite ready yet. "I'm not really sure at this point in time that it will be a major component of the negotiations," he said. "The current metric is the majority of the current audience, and what deals are based on."