Dueling Surveys

We’re fast approaching the start of the one-year countdown to the end of analog over-the-air transmission by local television broadcasters. The US Congress has been concerned that Americans may not be aware of the transition to digital broadcasts, or of the government rebate program for digital converters.

A survey commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) paints a rosy picture of the situation. According to a press release yesterday, 79% of US television households were aware of the February 17, 2009 cut-off date. Among households that rely on over-the-air broadcasts, the awareness level increases to 83%. This is up from 38% from a year ago. The NAB states that about 34 million US households rely on over-the-air broadcasts.

But not so fast! Consumer Reports also issue a press release yesterday, providing the results of their own survey. They found that 36% of US television households were completely unaware of the digital TV transition next year. According to the survey, 15% of all Americans rely on over-the-air programming, and 78% of them have analog sets. Consumer Reports estimates that this means that about 23 million people won’t be able to get television programming next year.

The survey also found that 58% of the respondents who are aware of the transition think that all televisions will need a converter box. 48% think that only digital televisions will work, and 28% think that they will have to throw out all analog televisions. The truth is that the transition will not affect anyone who relies on cable or satellite service for their television programming. All satellite services are already digital, and it’s between you and your cable company whether you have analog or digital service. In any case, your settop box will not be affected by the end of analog broadcasts. If you get your television programming over the air, then you will need either a set with a digital tuner, or a converter box that will allow you to continue to use your existing analog TV.

The differences between these two surveys are not as great as they seem; the awareness level is between 64% and 79%. The difference is whether you take a glass-half-full or glass-half-empty view of the numbers. If I had to pick one, I’d lean toward the Consumer Reports interpretation. There is a huge amount of confusion out there about who will be affected by the transition and what they should do about it. Every day since New Year’s, my HDTV Almanac entry about the government rebates for the digital converters has received almost as many hits as the day’s new entry.

If you understand the conversion situation, you should talk about it at social gatherings. You’ll find that a lot of your friends, family, and neighbors are confused, and they’ll appreciate a simple explanation of what it’s all about. (Or you could just send them here.) It’s clear that a large number of people don’t understand what they’re facing, and what they should do about it.