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6 Million US Citizens With No TV. Is This A Big Thing?

According to a study cited in the Boston Globe, around six million Americans stand to lose all access to television next February. These people are what I like to call “antenna people,” who choose not to subscribe to cable, satellite or phone-based (e.g., Verizon FIOS and others) programming services. And they aren’t the only ones affected.

On February 17, 2009, all full-power analog television transmitters in the United States are due to be shut off and de-commissioned. While cable and satellite penetration is enormous, there are still about 20 – 25% of the US population that chooses to not subscribe, getting their TV in a manner a producer I know calls “Over The Air, As God Intended.” Whether the deity is involved is definitely up to argument, but still, in a country of about 120 million TV households, that’s around 24 million homes, or (averaging 2.5 persons per home) 60 million Americans. Many of these folks are (hopefully) being addressed by the Federal DTV Tuner Coupon Program (go to DTV2009.gov if you haven’t yet signed up, and do it NOW…there are a limited number of coupons.) That is a bad situation on it’s own, but it isn’t even what this article is talking about.

A Los Angeles-based marketing firm called Centris produced a study that claims that, due to the way digital TV signals travel, that as many as 6% of Americans that now get analog OTA television may be left with fewer channels available – or even none at all. The problem is the “cliff effect” – simply put, where in analog TV a tuner might receive a snowy picture, in digital TV if you don’t get enough signal (nominally about 50%) you get zip. Zero. Nada. And according to Centris’ numbers, in a market like St. Louis, as much as 10% of households might be beyond the “cliff.”

What makes this even sadder yet is that a digital TV picture can be a wonder to behold, especially to rural viewers that have been accustomed to visual snowstorms for 50 years now. Of course, this may signal a resurgence for antennas, and at CES 2008 I saw several electronic “smart antennas” which might be able to fill the gap for some viewers. But this is just the latest in a very long line of little surprises that point out what a disaster the DTV transition has been. I expect many Congressional phones will be melting down with angry calls come February 18, 2009. Stay tuned, it might be fun to watch.


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A 1981 graduate of the Boston University College of Communication, Bruce A. Johnson got his first job in broadcast television at WFTV, an ABC affiliate in Orlando, FL. While there, he rose through the ranks…

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