Digital transition may delete millions of viewers
By Sam Adams
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - A year from Sunday, television for many Americans will cut to black. Analog signals will stop transmitting, older sets will become useless and millions of TV-watching households will simply disappear.
At least that's the doomsday scenario confronting the TV industry as a government mandate forces all U.S. stations to convert to digital from the analog signals that have been broadcast on the same frequencies since the 1930s.
An estimated 21 million households have TV sets that receive only over-the-air signals, and about 14 million of those homes rely solely on analog TVs, according to Nielsen Media Research. For viewers who don't upgrade to digital-ready TVs or set-top converters, February 18, 2009, will begin with a blank screen instead of a smiling Meredith Vieira. For TV executives, that day could be catastrophic.
"You could see a 5%-7% drop in the ratings in a heartbeat," says Shelly Palmer, president of the New York branch of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. Palmer estimates such a drop could translate to as much as $3 billion in lost revenue for networks, studios and stations.
Congress is preparing for the switch, allocating money for 33.5 million $40 coupons to defray the cost of set-top converters, which retail for about $50-$70. Each U.S. household is entitled to request up to two coupons, redeemable at a certified retailer within 90 days.
In addition, the National Association of Broadcasters is spending $700 million on digital TV education, which includes localized speaking engagements, informational ads set to premiere next week and a cross-country tour by two "DTV trekkers," customized vans made up to resemble analog TV sets.
But networks are confronting the possibility that the education efforts won't work and their already-eroding audience numbers will take another hit in the middle of next February's sweep. NBC already has asked Nielsen to move up that sweep period so it ends before the transition, and other executives are keeping a close eye on what's being done.
"A year out, is it daunting? Yes. Are people fully engaged? Yes. No matter what we do, it's not going to be perfect," says Martin Franks, executive vp at CBS Television. "It's just how much we can minimize any consumer disruption." Continued...