Tech Advancements: Friend or Foe?

Any reader who has been in the television broadcasting business for awhile is very much aware of the meaning of the expression, "The only constant here is change."

For lo, those many years from the dawn of television broadcasting after World War II until the 1980s, television was in essence, a three-part monopoly, albeit arguably a benevolent one.

A major reason for this monopoly's hold on the business was the fact that the cost of distributing programming nationally via cables and microwaves was so high that it effectively prevented any new players from getting into the game.

Then came television satellites, and this spawned cable networks, later joined by home video recording, the Internet, and cheap advanced data storage techniques, and the result is a very competitive television marketplace.

Have all these technological advances helped or hurt traditional television broadcasters? The record is mixed. Here are two recent developments that represent respectively, the "help" side and the "hurt" side.

The first reaction to any new, additional system to distribute programming is negative and even combative--witness the fight against home video recording in the 1980s--but frequently, the owners and distributors found they ultimately profited from such new systems.

The broadcast networks have recently begun offering many of their primetime programs on their Web sites. What has been the result? Surveys and research show that Internet viewing and broadcast viewing are mutually augmentative--people who watch the shows online also watch them on the air, and vice versa. That is, online distribution not only has not harmed broadcasters, it has helped them.

Further, a recent study found that those who watch TV shows on network Web sites tend to have high opinions of the brands that sponsor them, with 49 percent of network Web site viewers saying that sponsorship of the streaming or downloading of an episode would increase their tendency to consider the sponsor's brand.

Further, viewers of streamed or downloaded video are more likely than Internet users overall, by about 30 percent to 22 percent, to buy from companies that advertise on their favorite programs. If that isn't enough, 78 percent respond that being able to see episodes online increases their involvement with a program, and 25 percent report that they are watching a particular program more often because of what they have seen online.

The bottom line is that although traditional broadcast networks initially feared the distribution of their programming on the Internet, it has proved to be a boon to them.


Now for the bad news. A survey by the Association of Public Television Stations found that more than half of the estimated 22 million U.S. households that rely on over-the-air broadcast signals are not aware that those signals are scheduled to cease by Feb. 17, 2009. These households were also found to be disproportionately loyal to public television.

Although we might have concluded from the "conventional wisdom" that no one is still relying on over-the-air TV broadcasting, there is a total of something over 100 million television households in the United States, so those depending on off-air signals represent around 20 percent of all television households, a number that broadcasters would surely be distressed to lose.

While 61 percent of those who rely on off-air signals do not yet realize that analog television is going away, an additional 10 percent had a "limited awareness" of the situation, and another 17 percent were "somewhat aware" of the digital transition. 46 percent of those respondents either said they would "do nothing," or that they did not know how they would receive digital signals after the NTSC shutoff.

Nor are viewers who rely on off-air NTSC signals largely poor or aged. They are reported to have slightly lower incomes and slightly less education, but generally they are very similar to cable and satellite viewers. The survey revealed that about 18 percent of exclusively off-air viewers are members of public television stations, as compared with about 7.5 percent of all TV viewing households who are PTV members.

When we consider that there are an estimated 70 million TV sets in use in the United States that are not connected to cable or satellite signals, including extra sets used by cable and satellite subscribers (amounting to an average of approximately one unconnected set per television household), it is apparent that getting the word out about the NTSC shutoff, and what to do about it, is a high priority for all broadcasters.

Organized efforts are underway by public television broadcasters, the NAB, the Congress, and other broadcasters to spread the word. The law that mandates the 2009 shut off provides funding to pay for two $40 coupons per household to purchase converters, but the converters are expected to cost more than $40 each, so it will still ultimately cost the viewer something to be able to watch television.

We have already seen a number of delays, and we do not know now what will in fact happen on Feb. 17, 2009, but the Congress sounds kind of serious this time. Unless these education efforts are successful, broadcasters stand to lose substantial numbers of viewers if and when the NTSC shut off does happen.

Randy Hoffner