May 27, 2008
In Move to Digital TV, Some Will Be Left Behind
By BRIAN STELTER
NEARLY 25 million homes have at least one television set that will stop functioning in nine months, when the nation converts to digital over-the-air television.
Ten million of those homes are considered “completely unready” for the conversion, according to a report scheduled to be released Tuesday by Nielsen Media Research. Among the findings, Hispanic and African-American households stand to lose a disproportionately high share of access, and extra televisions in kitchens and bedrooms will be more likely to go dark, potentially cutting into the number of people viewing early morning and late-night television.
The survey is one of the first in-depth assessments of the nation’s readiness for the digital TV transition. In preparation for the change, the government and the broadcast industry are running a $1 billion consumer education campaign, including commercials that have started to become almost intrusive to people who watch television regularly.
“Most households are ready today, but there are a real percentage of homes that are not,” said Sara Erichson, an executive vice president at Nielsen, which found that about three-quarters of households are prepared.
Broadcast television stations will switch to a digital signal from an analog signal on Feb. 17, 2009. Televisions connected to cable or satellite service will not be affected. But older television sets that receive over-the-air signals will need to be hooked up to a converter box to ensure uninterrupted service. (Some newer sets are equipped for digital signals.) Affected consumers will bear at least some additional cost and will have to make a decision whether to buy a box or a more expensive set, almost certainly factors in their delayed response to the educational campaign.
The digital TV transition could have a significant impact on the television ratings maintained by Nielsen and relied on by networks and advertisers. If older TV sets simply drop out next February, viewer numbers and ratings will drop, hurting the local stations and television networks that sell advertising time tied to those ratings.
Using its ratings panel, Nielsen found that 9.4 percent of households, or roughly 10 million homes, were “completely unready” for the switch as of April 30, meaning that all their television sets would go dark next year. An additional 12.6 percent of households were partly unready.
Within some demographic groups, disparities were evident. Hispanic, exclusively Spanish-speaking, African-American and younger households showed higher percentages of unready sets.
“Some people expected that senior citizens would be among the most affected,” said Patricia McDonough, a senior vice president at Nielsen. “But looking at 65-years-plus households, they are among the most prepared.”
The data will help local broadcasters assess how much more outreach is needed. Spanish-language stations, for instance, may have to work harder to educate viewers: households that only speak Spanish make up 2 percent of the United States population, but 10 percent of the completely unready households.
Nielsen also found significant variations in readiness among local markets: for example, 18 percent of Milwaukee and Salt Lake City households were completely unready, while fewer than 4 percent of New York and Hartford households were.
Given the devotion with which many people watch television, the marketing blitz and government campaign may spur plenty of action before the February deadline. In January, the government began distributing $40 coupons to reduce the cost of converter boxes; with the coupons, the boxes cost $10 to $30. Television stations are running commercials informing viewers about the transition and pointing them to Web sites like DTV.gov, DTVAnswers.com and DTV2009.gov, where they can get the coupons.
Even so, certain markets with substantial amounts of over-the-air viewing face potential dropoffs in viewers. That is the last thing broadcasters need, coming off a season with double-digit ratings declines.
As of April, Nielsen’s sample showed that 17 percent of prime-time network viewing occurred on unready TV sets. For Spanish-language stations, 27 percent of prime-time viewing would be lost.
Nielsen data suggests that secondary TV sets — in the bedroom or the kitchen, perhaps — are more likely than the main set in the living room to be unready. Ratings for some daytime shows could be affected more than others. (Viewers use the unequipped sets more often in the morning hours, while readying for work and school, and the late-night hours, while falling asleep.)
Between January and April, Nielsen found that the number of partly unprepared households dropped from 23.6 to 22 percent, suggesting that viewers are slowly upgrading.
Ms. Erichson expects people to upgrade at an accelerated rate as the deadline nears. “But we also expect that some won’t be ready,” she said. “We believe some households won’t take action until they turn on a TV on Feb. 18 and realize they can’t watch their favorite broadcast shows.”
Last month Nielsen said it would delay the February “sweeps” ratings period, when some local stations use ratings to set advertising rates, until March, giving procrastinators time to upgrade.
At a trade show for broadcasters in April, David Rehr, the president of the National Association of Broadcasters, repeatedly promised to “leave no TV set behind” during the transition. He predicted a “renaissance of over-the-air viewing with crystal-clear viewing and phenomenal sound,” but he admitted to some nostalgia for the analog past and present.
“This is like leaving a home that you’ve lived in happily for many years, a home you’ve grown up in, but now a home you’ve grown out of,” he said. “It’s time to move on.”