Digital Transition Will Remake TV Experience For Diverse Group Of Viewers

Often we only recognize important moments in retrospect -- but we already know that this Friday will be a watershed day in media. When analog TV signals are erased from the U.S. airwaves and replaced by digital, a small percentage of households will lose TV access, despite the availability of converter boxes and government coupon programs; but many others have been or will be introduced to new programming, ads and technologies as a result of the transition -- changes that could shift their viewing behavior forever.

The newest media technology Ownership and Trend study by Knowledge Networks shows that 27% of TV homes have at least one set that uses through-the-air signals only. Of these homes, 19% say they are simply abandoning these "rabbit ears" sets altogether, while 81% are replacing them with digital sets or upgrading them for digital reception.

We found that 26% of all TV households have made some sort of a purchase -- a converter box (18%), an HD or digital TV set (8%), or a new cable or satellite TV subscription (5%) -- to prepare for the digital transition. These "transition upgrades" in some cases were more common among groups at risk of losing their TV access because of the switchover. So, apart from the relatively few who may end up being disconnected, we also find that some in these high-risk groups are gaining access to new channels and technologies.

For example, African-American (20%) and Hispanic (22%) TV households were more likely than white (15%) ones to have bought a digital converter for a broadcast-only set. And while one in four (26%) homes earning less than $30,000 a year bought a converter box, the proportion drops to almost one in seven (15%) when income rises to $50,000 or more. Clearly, buying a converter box is the least costly way to make the digital upgrade; but even this approach is likely to give people - in a market like the New York/tristate area - access to two dozen or more "side channels" they have never seen before.

(We are not asserting that these are the only groups at risk in the transition; but, contrary to some published reports, we did not find that older people are at high risk of losing their TV access in the transition.)

In addition, 8% of all TV households bought an HDTV or digital set just for the digital changeover - a proportion that rises to 11% for each of our three at-risk groups (low-income, African American, Hispanic). In a report to be released next month, we will show that access to HD programming changes how people approach television; they are more likely to check high-definition channels first when looking for something to watch, and more likely to say commercials in HD programs are relevant to them.

These behaviors are essentially the same regardless of HD tenure; in other words, they do not appear to be short term. And the digital transition is bringing them to homes that might otherwise not have experienced HD until prices came further down, or maybe never.

Among those who have adopted a new TV service for the transition, we found that 63% chose cable, while virtually all others got satellite. These new subscriptions were not statistically higher among the at-risk groups.

Thanks to the transition to digital TV, new technologies and channels are coming into a variety of homes -- including lower-income and ethnic ones. Something tells me we will be tracking the effects of this new TV world for many years to come.

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1 comment about "Digital Transition Will Remake TV Experience For Diverse Group Of Viewers".
  1. John Willkie from EtherGuide Systems , June 10, 2009 at 5:17 p.m.

    First, friday will NOT be a watershed day in digital broadcasting; it's been around for a decade, and so the discovery of all these new channels has already occurred. Or not.

    Second, analog isn't disappearing. Low Power Television and Television translator stations (many more than full-service television stations) have no "analog shutoff" date set at this point.

    And, since the vast majority of television viewers subscribe to cable/satellite, and cable/satellite (outside of satellite systems carrying Alaska stations) aren't required to carry all the sub-channels on a digital station, the number of households exposed to new channels through the digital transition is small.

    Lastly, people don't watch technology, they watch television. Too few will be exposed to new channels via the transition. Nor are the "technologies" used in digital broadcasting all that new; certainly the viewer will only notice higher-quality audio and video, with little or no cognizance of the underlying technology.

    There are emerging new technologies around the corner that you might be tracking for years to come, including OCAP/ACAP, mobile digital television, interactive broadcasting, non-real-time television, java-enabled television sets, and television sets connected to the Internet.

    The only people directly affected at this point by the cessation of analog by full-service television stations are those too dumb or inertia-bound to upgrade or buy a converter box (the real-world price after coupon redemption is $5 or more). I suspect that many of these folks will discover the benefits of digital only after a few days without television.

    I'd be interested in the methodology in your study, in particular how viewers were able to identify "HDTV" commercials and programs. As a practical matter, HDTV means 16:9 video, but 16:9 video doesn't necessarily mean HDTV. I still see SDTV spots (but few programs these days) that are manipulated to emulate the aspect ratio of HDTV. And, if the viewer is watching "HDTV" on an analog set fed by a convderter box, their opinions of HDTV content are slightly more relevant than people using b&w sets four decades ago commenting on how color looked on their sets.

    Other than the above push backs, your column was insightful.

    John Willkie
    EtherGuide Systems