Nielsen: Households Not Ready for Digital TV

Published August 1, 2008

According to survey data from Nielsen Media Research, nearly 10 percent of U.S. households are not ready for next year’s transition from analog to digital television (DTV).

In addition to the 9.4 percent of households described by the survey as “not ready”–meaning they don’t have TV sets equipped to get digital signals–another 12.6 percent are only “partially ready,” meaning they have some sets that are not equipped.

Those figures from the survey released on May 27 come despite multimillion-dollar taxpayer-funded campaigns to make Americans aware of the changeover through advertising and to facilitate household transitions through tax-subsidized coupons for the purchase of analog-to-digital converters.

Beginning February 17, 2009 all full-powered broadcast television stations must switch their analog signals to digital, as a result of a congressional mandate. Viewers will need a digital TV, a digital converter box, or a subscription to a cable or satellite television service.

Viewers who receive their signals via off-air antennas are considered most susceptible to blackouts on the transition day because they will need to buy digital converter boxes to continue watching TV.

Data Criticized

Megan Pollock, senior manager for communications at the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), criticized the Nielsen data.

“The context of the data is important here–the Nielsen numbers show that 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,” Pollock said. “That means Nielsen is counting as ‘unprepared’ even those households that subscribe to cable and satellite–and thus need do nothing to continue watching television after February 17, 2009.

“Put another way, if there is even one TV in a cable/satellite household that is not plugged into the service–for example, it is used to watch DVDs or play video games–Nielsen counts that household as unprepared,” Pollock continued. “For the 86 percent of U.S. households that subscribe to cable or satellite, the DTV transition does not impact their ability to watch TV.”

Pollock went on to say, “More than 50 percent of U.S. households already have a digital television. As the number of analog television households continues to decline, the number of households that need to take any action before February 17, 2009 will also decline.”

Coupon Program Defended

Todd Sedmak, communications director at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce, defended the efficacy of the coupon program and declined to comment on the Nielsen figures.

“Millions of Americans are making the switch to digital television every day either by connecting their analog TV to a converter box or subscribing to cable, satellite, or other pay TV service, or purchasing a new digital TV,” Sedmak said. “We are pleased that nearly three million coupons have been redeemed for converter boxes. Consumers should act now to switch to digital TV.”

Conclusions Questioned

Anne Kissel Elliot, vice president of communications for Nielsen Media Research, would not explicitly link the survey figures to any conclusions about the efficacy of taxpayer-funded spending.

“I think it is fair to say that Nielsen’s research does not really offer any measure of the success or failure of information campaigns to-date,” Elliot said. “For one thing, we do not have statistics from the period before announcements began to compare to current data. Nielsen’s goal is to report what is currently happening in order to inform our clients, including local television stations and broadcast networks.

“While we do see a reduction in the percent of households that still rely solely on over-the-air analog television, we do not know what has caused that change. There are many factors that contribute to the differences we see from individual market to market, including the ease of receiving over-the-air signals,” Elliot continued.

FCC Increases Effort

Despite the uncertainty about whether the information campaign has worked, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is forging ahead with an increased effort.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin announced on June 4 the commission is expanding its national Digital Television Education and Awareness Campaign to include the release of newly developed public service announcements that will be distributed nationally to full-power television and radio stations.

FCC is providing more than 11,000 radio stations across the country with 15-, 30-, and 60-second public service announcements on the transition.

Martin also announced billboards will be placed in approximately 45 of the nation’s television markets announcing the upcoming switch from analog to digital television. Billboards have already gone up in Philadelphia, San Francisco, Seattle, and Tampa.

Tabassum Rahmani ([email protected]) writes from Dublin, California.