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Viewers Like Who?

In its ongoing quest to learn more about the nation's over-the-air TV viewers, the FCC definitively discovered that A) either they are not assiduous filers of FCC comments, or B) there are only 13 of them.

Last May, the FCC issued a public notice requesting the skinny on just how many people rely on over-the-air (OTA) television, who these people are and where they reside; how many also have cable and/or DBS service and how many don't. The commission set about to gather information on OTA-only viewers who, as a group, have become the political hot potato of the digital transition. Little, if any, empirical data is available on OTA-only viewers, who may very well lose all TV reception if lawmakers actually establish and enforce a hard analog shut-off date.

As of Wednesday, Aug. 4, the final day for comments on the OTA fact-finding public notice, a whopping 53 documents had been submitted with the FCC, even after the comment period had been extended by 30 days. Two were filed by FCC officials themselves; 13 by individuals; 21 by telecoms wanting analog broadcast spectrum and 17 by lobbies and corporations such as RadioShack.

The Shack, smelling a serious profit opportunity, generously volunteered to distribute government-subsidized signal converters, should such a program be implemented.

"RadioShack believes that the government should not seek to procure and distribute the equipment itself for several reasons," the company's filing stated. "First, the procurement and distribution of as many as 45 million converter boxes and antennas would be extremely unwieldy and add unnecessary cost to the federal government, which does not possess the infrastructure and does not have the needed experience in the distribution of these products."

The filing went on to say that 94 percent of Americans live or work within five minutes of a RadioShack, a claim that at the very least bears up to passing scrutiny.

Among those individuals who bothered to write to the FCC, Mr. Gary Seleski of Livonia, Mich., took the prize for the most succinct filing, comprised entirely of the following:

"We depend on over-the-air reception for all [six] of our televisions. We have satellite service, but local signals cost more, and reception of local signals during bad weather is more reliable, necessary during those times."

Chris Llana of Chapel Hill, N.C. gave the digital playuhs inside the Beltway a two-plus page piece of her mind for not telling the public squat about the progression of the transition.

"Legitimate market forces can only work if the consumer is informed," Llana wrote. "This is certainly not the case. People have been walking into big-box electronics stores and walking out with millions if not billions of NTSC sets every year since the beginning of the transition, and even today, consumers continue to blissfully buy analog sets without a clue to the fact that those sets are already obsolete."

In its final filing on the subject, the NAB attempted to quantify OTA reliance with numbers from a Knowledge Networks/SRI survey done earlier this year. According to the survey (sample size not included), more than 20 million U.S. households, or nearly 19 percent of the nation's TV households, rely exclusively on OTA reception. The total number of sets in these homes is estimated at more than 45 million, only around 177,232 of which have digital OTA reception. The survey indicated there are another 60 million or so OTA-only sets in pay TV households, 1.3 million of which have digital OTA reception. Therefore, of the 105 million OTA sets in U.S. homes, only 1 percent have digital OTA capability.

Demographically, the survey indicated that OTA-only viewers are predominantly young Spanish-speaking city dwellers in the Southern states who make $30,000 a year or less.

Replies on the OTA public notice are due Sept. 7.