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Could going digital be a snoozer?

Pressure is building toward the Feb. 17, 2009, analog shutoff. TV set makers, broadcast associations, and cable and satellite vendors are all gearing up. Congress has assured plenty of money will be spent — or wasted — advertising the turnoff and free STBs for everybody. Broadcasters are ready. The FCC says 1600-plus DTV stations are on the air. (See Figure 1.)

So it's full steam ahead. We can expect a clean break from analog, and off we go into the wild blue yonder of digital television. Right?

Not unless broadcasters become active in helping their viewers get behind the transition. Without an industry-wide education effort, the analog turnoff could be (to borrow an NAB phrase) a train wreck.

Why? Because most local viewers have no idea the end of analog is coming. A recent NAB survey of TV households showed that 56 percent of those relying on OTA reception had “seen, read or heard nothing” about the transition. Only 10 percent knew that the cutoff date was in February 2009, meaning 90 percent of OTA viewers don't even know that you are about to turn off their televisions!

A 2007 study by CENTRIS for the Association of Public Television Stations reinforced this data, predicting that a majority of the 22 million OTA homes in the United States would move slowly to adopt DTV technology. The survey showed that, measured over the past three years, fewer than 13 percent of OTA households per year purchased a TV set. Cable and satellite-equipped homes buy new TVs at an 18 percent per year rate.

Echoing this faster conversion rate for non-OTA homes, the data showed that the number of DTV-equipped cable/satellite homes grew from 4.49 percent in 2005 to 23.5 percent in the first quarter of 2007. Measured over that same period, OTA homes with DTV sets grew from just under 2 percent to barely over 7 percent.

Some communities are just now beginning to recognize a potential viewer problem. A February article in the “Chicago Defender” newspaper claims 20 percent of Chicagoans rely on OTA television. Mitchell Szczepanczyk, organizer for the activist group Chicago Media Action, claims that the change to digital will be especially hard on low-income viewers. He says low-income families may view the purchase of a converter box as an unnecessary expense. “It's forcing people to make a Catch-22: ‘Do I need food, or do I need a TV set?’ We could potentially be dealing with people's lives,” Szczepanczyk said in the article.

Despite the Chicagoan's doom and gloom scenario, there are some positive indicators that OTA viewers recognize the need to go digital. A Eureka, MO, company, Antennas Direct, manufactures external TV antennas for digital reception. While people first laughed at Richard Schneider, the company's president, he claims the company had $1.4 million in 2006 sales and predicts twice that for 2007.

Broadcasters all recognize the door on analog is closing. Even so, our future depends on helping our OTA viewers successfully make that transition with us. If we can, then the analog turnoff could be a big snooze for everyone. And that would be a good thing.

Station category Number of DTV stations on air Top 30 market, network-affiliated 119 Other, commercial 1141 Non-commercial, educational 350 Total1610

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