Digital switch leaves viewers at risk

Upscale homes are ready, many others are not

With many media reports still citing Government Office of Accountability numbers that date back to 2005, the upcoming transition to digital broadcasting has often been described as a disaster in the making, with as many as one in five U.S. homes suddenly displaced from the TV universe once the shift goes down Feb. 17.

According to more recent data compiled by Nielsen Media Research, however, the transition’s effects — while still profound within specific markets — are likely to be far less dramatic for big English-language broadcasters and their advertising partners.

According to Nielsen data compiled in October, 8.8 million (or 7.7%) of U.S. homes remain totally unready for the switchover, meaning every TV in the house is an older-model set that doesn’t have a cable box or other equipment needed to convert digital signals to analog.

And this outcast population seems to be rapidly decreasing, with Nielsen counting 9.6 million such homes just a month earlier.

Meanwhile, according to a report recently put out by ad-buying firm Carat North America, homes categorized as completely unready “are concentrated among Hispanic, older-skewing, lower-income, less-educated, rural and blue-collar households,” not the kind of audience that, say, ABC is targeting for “Lost.” Markets with the largest percentage of homes that remain ill-prepared include Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth and Tulsa.

“The Hispanic market, which relies in many cases on low-power Spanish-language stations, is probably the worst off in terms of readiness,” says Shari Anne Brill, Carat’s senior VP and director of programming, who compiled the report. “This means Univision and Telemundo may have some concerns.”

Ultimately, the spectrum conversion’s significance isn’t likely to be about what happens to a relatively small, disenfranchised viewing minority. Rather, it seems to be the final solidifier to a new paradigm in which the TV universe — at least, the one that’s relevant to advertisers — goes almost exclusively through cable and satellite, and rabbit-ears-only viewers no longer count.

Notably last week, college football’s Bowl Championship Series moved its TV deal from Fox to ESPN, marking the first time a major American team sports championship event will be only viewable only to cable and satellite subscribers. In recent years, early-round Major League Baseball and National Basketball Assn. playoff contests have also migrated to cable.

“I honestly don’t think (the digital transition) will make for a huge change right off the bat,” says one TV buyer. “For the most part, the people we’re really trying to reach get their TV through cable or satellite already.”

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