Laid back and, soon, TV-free in Los Angeles?
Few organizations have more influence over television broadcasting than the Nielsen Co., whose panels of viewers supply the ratings that help determine what advertisers pay for their commercial slots. Now, Nielsen is helping shape the debate over TV technology -- in particular, the transition to digital. Using knowledge gained from its panels, the company has tracked how well prepared viewers are for the mid-February cut-off of analog channels. And its numbers are one of the main reasons consumer groups and selected broadcasters, backed by President-elect Barack Obama's transition team, are pushing Congress to push back the cut-off date indefinitely.
Susan Whiting, vice president of Nielsen Co., said the makeup of the national and 56 local panels reflects America at large, with a representative mix of homes with pay TV services and with rabbit ears. Watching those panels, she said, Nielsen has seen a steady decrease in the number of homes totally unprepared for the end of analog broadcasts. That would be homes who rely on over-the-air TV signals who do not have a single digital TV tuner in their home, either in a digital set or a converter box. It's similarly seen a decline in the number of homes partially unprepared, which would be homes with one or more sets equipped with digital tuners (or cable or satellite TV receivers). But the numbers of unprepared or under-prepared homes remains alarmingly high, especially in Los Angeles....
Here are some interesting data from Nielsen, as of December:
Nationally, 6.8% of TV-watching homes were completely unprepared for the cut-off, and about 10% were partially unprepared. In Los Angeles, those figures were notably higher, reflecting the unusually large percentage of homes that rely on over-the-air TV: 9.5% completely unready, 10.6% partially ready. (The market in the worst shape, Nielsen estimated, is Albuquerque, with 13% of all TV households completely unready.) With nearly 113 million homes with TVs in the U.S. in 2008 (and more than 5.6 million in Los Angeles), those percentages translate into very big numbers. If the analog stations were shut off today, nearly 7.7 million homes across the country, and more than half a million in LA, would have no TV.
Nielsen's nationwide numbers suggest that the completely unready homes are disproportionately poor. Surprisingly, households led by someone under 35 were less likely to be prepared than those led by someone over 55. And African-American and Hispanic households were more likely to be completely unprepared than white or Asian homes.
The Times' editorial board has argued for keeping the current cut-off date, saying the switch will cause a certain number of problems whenever it happens. The best argument I've heard on the other side, which FCC Commissioners Robert McDowell and Jonathan Adelstein made at last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is that neither the FCC nor local governments are prepared yet to handle the volume of calls sure to come from TV viewers when the analog channels go dark. When Wilmington, N.C., stations went all-digital last year, it triggered nearly 2,300 calls -- mainly from people who knew what was going on, but still hadn't managed to get ready for it. But the FCC just announced a $12 million contract with IBM to beef up its call center, enabling it to field up to 400,000 inquiries on the day analog channels go dark.
Granted, there remains a problem with the converter-box subsidy program, which has nearly ground to a halt because of a temporary lack of funding. The proposed economic stimulus package would provide $650 million more for the coupons, but it's not likely to pass in time to meet the demand for subsidies before the cut-off date. But here's the thing. The vast majority of consumers have known for some time about the looming transition to digital, and close to 99% are aware now, according to TV Newsday. In addition, as a trial run in Wilmington, N.C., showed, many of the people who weren't ready for the cut-off had converter boxes, they just hadn't hooked them to their sets. So the lingering unpreparedness is partly by choice, and delaying the cutoff would only postpone the day when problems surface.
Here's one other interesting data point found by Nielsen in its national sample, which examined what happened when 583 sets were made ready for digital last year. In those households, total TV viewing went up almost 20%. The time spent watching broadcast channels dropped sharply, though -- almost 50% less time spent watching English-language stations, and almost 30% less watching local Spanish-language channels. That's because more than a third of those sets were made ready for digital by connecting them to cable or satellite TV feeds. It's more than a little ironic that the shift in broadcasting technology, which was meant to help local stations compete in the digital era, is helping their competitors.
DTV converter box photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images