America: DTV Ready?

It looks like the federal government’s decision to delay until June 12 the switch-over to all-digital television broadcasting brought enough time for many tardy consumers to prepare their homes for the cutoff from traditional analog TV. Or did it?

According to a national survey released May 1 by the National Association of Broadcasters, 82 percent of American households relying exclusively on antennas to watch television are now fully prepared for the nationwide switch to digital.

In early February, the NAB said that same number “had taken steps to prepare” for the transition—compared to being “fully prepared” now.

Only 2.1 million, or 11 percent, of 20 million exclusively over-the-air television households have not yet taken action to get ready for the transition.

The figures beg the question of whether the delay was worth it? Broadcasters were forced to keep older analog transmitters running the additional months. The delay also caused some public confusion and led to, as my colleague Steve Wildstrom calls it, “a pointless repetition of the DTV educational campaign without accomplishing anything useful.”

Federal regulators have estimated that 4 percent of all U.S. TV-watching households will not take action to get ready until after a cutoff occurs. Nielsen in late April said 3.1 percent of total U.S. households were unprepared, with most of those ages 34 and under. The new NAB numbers bring that figure down to 2.1 percent of total households.

The earlier Feb. 12 cutoff date was postponed amid concerns that the poor and elderly would be disenfranchised by the transition. The government has run out of money to subsidize the purchase of the converter boxes that will allow older analog TVs to work with digital over-the-air signals. The waiting list in January topped 2.5 million requests. (The vast majority of Americans who get their TV signal from cable or satellite providers may never realize that there was a digital transition.)

It certainly looks as if the coupon backlog was overblown. Of the 56.2 million coupons mailed out so far, only 28.4 million have been redeemed, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, which manages the TV converter box coupon program. About 7 million remain active, which should leave the program pretty well funded.

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