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The Digital Television Switch – Impact and Update

3 minute read | July 2009

Sara Erichson, President, Media Client Services North America, The Nielsen Company

The June 12 transition to digital broadcasting was an important milestone for all of us who work in the television industry. For Nielsen, the transition went very smoothly thanks to a year of planning and the close cooperation of our broadcast clients.

Because our metered panels are representative of U.S. television households nationwide and in individual local markets, Nielsen was able to track the country’s progress in preparing for the digital switchover. In January 2008, 10.5% of households were “completely unready” for digital television (i.e. none of the TV sets in their homes were capable of receiving digital television). Armed with this information, we began communicating with key leaders in the government, the television industry, and the news media — including 400 publications and radio stations that serve African American, Hispanic and Asian communities.

Thanks to significant public awareness campaigns by these and other groups, only 2.2% of households were unready for digital television at the time of transition.

Even though the transition took place over a month ago, we continue to look at the impact that digital television has had on consumer access to and viewing of television.

  • Since June 12th, the number of completely unready homes continues to drop and now stands at only 1.3% of television households. Based on a recent survey of the non-digital homes, we expect to see continued improvement in the weeks ahead as these homes continue to figure out what they must do to be able to receive digital television. When asked, virtually all these homes surveyed said they were planning to switch to digital television, either by converter box, or cable/satellite subscription.
  • Among those TV sets that became digitally ready in the few months just prior to June 12th, 77% were connected to a digital converter box, 19% to cable and 4% to DBS. This contrasts greatly to trends seen in the very early months, when the majority of the transitioning homes acquired cable or satellite in order to receive over-the-air television.
  • As of June 28, 60% of completely non-ready homes were still able to view some television by watching a low power station, a foreign station near the Canadian or Mexican borders or a U.S. broadcast station that is available to them via a “translator.” (Translators have been used for years to deliver signals to remote areas of the country.) As a consequence, television viewing in these homes has not disappeared completely, although viewing choices are extremely limited.
  • Those stations that transitioned on June 12th saw some decline in viewing in the two weeks immediately following the transition compared to the two weeks prior. Stations that changed their digital signal from UHF to VHF were most affected. This is because some digitally ready homes had to rescan sets or converter boxes. Others had to acquire a new antenna that received both UHF and VHF digital signals. However, this decline in viewing was largely temporary and in recent weeks we have seen audiences returning. As more homes sort out problems with antennas and converters this return to prior levels should continue.

In sum, the digital transition seems not to have had a major impact on viewing levels. People still watch a significant amount of television and we believe the small number of households that remain without digital television will eventually make the switch-over from analog television.

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