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OTA Culture Evades Pigeonholing

As lawmakers prepare to craft a new telecom bill, they might do well to read the FCC's report on over-the-air television viewers. The commission's investigation revealed just how much isn't known about this mysterious band of pay TV holdouts.

The report reiterated the long-held conclusion that around 15 percent of the nation's television households rely exclusively on OTA signals. But that proportion is derived from wild variations across the country's 210 designated market areas.

In the following 10 markets, for example, cable/DBS penetration exceeded 85 percent: Honolulu; Hartford-New Haven, Conn.; Boston; Springfield-Holyoke, Mass.; San Diego; Philadelphia; Palm Springs, Calif.; Providence, R.I.; New York and Harrisburg-Lancaster-Lebanon-York, Pa.

Concurrently, cable/DBS penetration was around 50 percent in these 13 DMAs: Fresno-Visalia, Calif. Dallas-Ft. Worth; Bangor, Me.; Meridian, Miss.; Duluth-Superior, Minn.; Harlingen-Weslaco-McAllen-Brownsville, Texas; Salt Lake City; Missoula, Mont.; Twin Falls, Idaho; Springfield, Mo.; Idaho Falls-Pocatello, Idaho; Boise, Idaho; and Fairbanks, Alaska.

While OTA households are thought to be somewhat more Hispanic, African-American and lower income, geographic data defies assumptions. OTA reliance is about 30 percent in the Dallas, Minneapolis and Salt Lake City markets; Palm Springs, Calif. and Parkersburg, W.V. have the lowest proportion of OTA households in the country at 6 percent.

If there be a thread of similarity holding together this feisty OTA culture, it would appear to be an aversion for filing comments with the FCC. The commission's public inquiry generated 47 comments and 12 replies, many from lobbies and TV companies.

The report suggested two options for shutting off analog signals. The first, favored by lawmakers, is a sudden and simultaneous end to analog transmissions. The second, "fade to black," would phase out analog transmissions on a market-by-market basis, and would allow OTA households to continue receiving emergency information and local programming.

"Given the importance of an accurate assessment, funding of a formal study would be helpful to establish the precise number of OTA households on a market-by-market basis, and to forecast how those numbers are expected to change over the next several years," the report said.