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Who's Ready for the Digital Transition?


Paul Verna, Senior Analyst

In a throwback to the Y2K transition, a number of Websites are running countdown clocks that, presently, read "426 days, 8 hours, 39 minutes, 31 seconds." That is the time remaining until Feb. 17, 2009, the deadline set by Congress when all US broadcasters must cease analog broadcasting and switch to all-digital signals.

As this date approaches, interested parties are ratcheting up the debate over a number of important questions, including:

  • How prepared are the government and the broadcast industry for the changeover?
  • How aware is the public of the transition?
  • Who is most likely to be affected by the change?
  • What technical issues need to be resolved before the transition happens?
Preparedness is a point of contention in the government. A Dec. 11 report by the US Government Accountability Office criticized the Federal Communications Commission and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration for their handling of the matter. The GAO concluded that "no comprehensive plan exists for the DTV transition."

The FCC countered that it "has been planning for the DTV transition for more than 20 years" and offered a 97-page inventory of what it called its "considerable and comprehensive plans, goals and achievements on technical, policy, consumer outreach and other critical elements of the DTV transition."

On the same day, however, FCC commissioners Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein—not coincidentally the only two Democrats on the FCC panel—distanced themselves from the agency’s official position. Copps wrote: "It continues to astound me that we do not have a comprehensive DTV transition plan" and that "the hour is late—very late."

And, in a candid acknowledgment of the divisions within the organization, Copps revealed that he had not seen the FCC’s response to the GAO report before its publication and did not necessarily endorse its assertions.

As these government agencies continue to point fingers at each other, new data shed light on where US consumers are vis-à-vis the DTV transition.

A study by the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing found that 34% of total US households surveyed were familiar with the transition. The percentages were higher among some of the more "connected" segments of the viewing population, that is, broadband households (45%) and digital cable households (40%).

However, the lowest awareness percentages were reported by the groups most likely to be affected by the transition: primary and secondary over-the-air (OTA) households.

CTAM also noted that primary OTA households had lower mean incomes than cable and satellite households that had at least one OTA TV set. Residents of primary OTA households were also less likely than members of cable-OTA or satellite-OTA households to live in a single-family house or to have attended college.

The Leichtman Research Group reached similar conclusions in a report titled "HDTV 2007: Consumer Awareness, Interest and Ownership." The group noted that 43% of US adults had heard of the digital TV transition, up from one-third in 2006.

Leichtman also found that a household's degree of "connectedness" tended to affect its awareness of the impending switch. Among those who weren't subscribing to cable or satellite services, about one-fifth said they were aware of the digital transition and understood how it would affect their households, a far lower percentage than the overall figure of 43%.

Income level also had a bearing on familiarity with the DTV transition. More than one-half of households with annual income over $75,000 had heard of the transition, versus 36% among those in households with smaller annual incomes, according to Leichtman.

"The majority of Americans remain in the dark about the consequences of the digital TV transition," said Bruce Leichtman, president of Leichtman.

A July 2007 article in Ars Technica cited data from the American Association of Retired Persons that showed that Americans age 50 and older watched an average of 5.5 hours of TV a day, the most TV of any US demographic group. This group is also the most likely to be among the estimated 20 million Americans who still get their TV signals over the air, according to Ars Technica.

As the transition approaches, the greatest challenge for broadcasters and regulators will be to continue raising awareness of the issue. To that end, the FCC has undertaken a number of awareness initiatives in conjunction with organizations including the US Administration on Aging, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the American Library Association.

A study done last year by CBS suggested that awareness alone was enough to motivate substantial numbers of OTA viewers to make the digital switch. The company found that less than 30% of the US population was aware of the DTV switch as of the fourth quarter of 2006. However, among those who were not aware, when told of the change, 40% said they would upgrade to a digital set before 2009.

Stay tuned to see what happens next. And make sure you're not using those rabbit ears.

Learn more about TV in the digital age. Get your copy of eMarketer's US TV Trends: The Impact of DVRs, VOD and the Web report today.

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