07.06.2005 12:00 AM
CEA, NAB and Consumer Groups Spar Over OTA Numbers
One of the most vague statistics in all of telecommunications is this: How many TV sets in how many homes are fully dependent on antennas for reception? As vague as this stat might be, here is this other question: How many in-home sets are not used for TV reception of any kind, but are merely monitors for DVDs, VHS and videogames?

The issue has become a political football because consumer groups are now announcing numbers that lobby groups say are inflated, misguided and ultimately misused. True numbers are important because whenever a final analog cut-off occurs in each market (probably by late 2008), consumers dependent on terrestrial reception will have to purchase converter boxes to pick up digital content via their analog sets, including those who may qualify for federal subsidies.

Complicating matters is the undisputed fact that many homes appear to have at least one OTA set, as well as other receivers that tap into either cable or DBS. So while these households may use antennas, they will not be left completely in the dark when analog is shut down.

The Consumers Union (publisher of Consumer Reports) and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) last week reported 39 percent of households have at least one analog set that will go dark without a converter. They also report the transition could cost consumers a total of $3.5 billion (based on about $50 per converter box). As Congress considers setting a delayed deadline for the transition, it must decide how much to compensate consumers for boxes, if at all, and at what household income threshold a federal subsidy would become applicable.

The NAB and Government Accountability Office side with the CU/CFA survey, saying up to a whopping 80 million TV sets would be affected. In the opposite corner, the Consumer Electronics Association begs to strongly differ--saying it's closer to less than half that number. CEA's Michael Petricone, vice president of Technology Policy, said in a statement the CU/CFA study is fatally flawed: "[It] inexplicably neglected to ask consumers the key question facing policymakers: How many sets in U.S. households solely rely on an antenna to receive television programming?"

Petricone said the survey "appears to assume that any TV not connected to cable or satellite is connected to a broadcast antenna. In fact, as our most recent [May 2005] survey found, a minimum of 31 million sets are not connected to broadcast antennas and are used exclusively for video games, DVDs or other purposes. For this reason, the...survey appears to significantly overstate the number of televisions used to view OTA broadcasting."

Petricone added that CEA limited its survey to TV sets that had been used at some point "within the prior three months, thereby allowing us to have an accurate real-world analysis of TVs that are in use."

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