WQ 03 Dec 2008 From www.medialifemagazine.com What Feb. 17 means to media buyers The switchover to digital will disrupt programming By Diego Vasquez Dec 3, 2008 Come February, media people will be confronted with one of the biggest TV measurement issues in recent memory. Theres just over two months left before the analog-to-digital switchover on Feb. 17, and while the majority of U.S. households seem ready, nearly 8 percent remain unprepared. In fact, in some of the countrys largest markets, including Dallas and Los Angeles, more than 10 percent of TV households are not ready for the switch. Nielsen cannot step in to advise these households to switch over, lest it compromise its impartiality as a ratings gathering service, but it has already responded to media buyer and seller concerns by moving the February sweeps to March. In addition, a new report from media agency Carat predicts that the analog-to-digital switch will have some other consequences. Many households that had been receiving over-the-air signals have signed up for cable for the transition, and the additional channels and program choices could ultimately decrease share of viewing to broadcast television, the report predicts. Shari Anne Brill, senior vice president and director of programming at Carat and author of the report, talks to Media Life about buyers and planners biggest concerns, the impact on sweeps, and which demographics will be most effected. What's the most important thing for media buyers and planners to keep in mind regarding the February digital transition? Probably having an awareness of it, at least keeping track of the details of whats happening. Were less than three months away and a substantial amount of the country is still not ready for the change. Its at 8.8 million people currently who are completely unprepared. The other thing to keep in mind is, how will the networks and stations program given the migrated sweeps period? Is February going to be a lot of repeats? Keep in mind that January is normally a big repeat month, and to have more in February may not bode well with viewers. The number of unprepared households has been slowly dwindling. How many do you think will be completely unprepared when the switchover arrives, and why haven't they taken action? Your guess is as good as mine. Nielsen can only look at whats happening in their sample homes. I know theyve done diary estimates in addition to their metered samples. But it could be some elderly and Hispanics that are the last groups to fall in. The converter box program is not going so hot, mainly because consumers sent away for them early and many coupons have expired, and also there are no converters left in stores in some cases. Also, the less-than-positive economy could compromise consumers desire to subscribe to cable, unless there are bargain packages. Many Hispanic homes, particularly out West, rely on lower-power TV to get their signals. And those living really close to Canada may get some Canadian stations over the air if they dont change. Then there are homes that are hybrids, with some ready sets and some unready. Were trying to get a breakdown of how many of these unready sets are really used for television at all [as opposed to DVD or VCR use, for example]. Some could wind up just being removed altogether. What sort of constraints is Nielsen dealing with with regards to informing sample households of the upcoming switch? They are not allowed to compromise the natural viewing behavior. Its supposed to track TV how its normally viewed. However, questions have come up. All the reps can do now is hand out a postcard that tells people to contact someone that can direct them to the appropriate places for information. The second thing Nielsen is doing is normally they have a lot of reps that work extra time during whats called holiday recovery. Many homes get new equipment over the holidays, and Nielsen has to make sure the new equipment is wired up properly. And the same thing could occur here. The other time when many people get new equipment is right before the Super Bowl, which is part of the reason why the transition got pushed to February. I think there will be a lot of craziness on Feb. 17 and 18 unless more people are already up and ready before hand. So it would make sense for the local stations to do a little test before the switch. Even if you have the converter box, if youre not hooked up to cable you still have to get another antenna, and that hasnt really been mentioned that much. What's the biggest potential viewer implication of the digital switch? No matter how much outreach you do there will still be some groups that dont have access to the internet or someone younger and more informed around. One organization hired Florence Henderson from The Brady Bunch to lead this whole public service ad campaign to get baby boomers to look in on their elderly neighbors and see that theyre ready. Are there any demographics that could be affected more than others by the switch? Older and rural. If you look at the local markets most impacted, it gives you a sign. Less educated. High school dropouts. Low income, especially under $25,000 yearly household income. The top most-unready markets are Houston and Dallas. And then its Memphis and Austin, and Los Angeles is up there as well. There are a number of Hispanic-heavy markets, as well as Salt Lake City, which has very low cable penetration. The key thing is how these markets improve. Some did make some strides since we looked at it last on Sept. 1. It will be interesting to see whats going on starting Jan. 1. It may not seem so bad on a national level, but there are certain local markets whose unpreparedness is still in double digits. How long do you think it will take before things get back to "normal" after the digital switch? I dont know, I expect a lot of chaos at first. There are people who have everything they need, but they dont have the reception because they may not have it set up properly. Its a matter of really getting prepared in advance, and hopefully consumers wont wait until Valentines Day to do something. Because its happening whether everybodys ready or not. Thats why I think its really important, in some of these markets where there are problems, to maybe test with a temporary shutoff. The February sweeps have been pushed back to March due to the transition. Do you see the networks moving any of their sweeps stunts as well, or will we still see many of the traditional ones (Grammys, Oscars, etc.) in February? Theyre not saying. I guess they dont want to give the other guys a competitive advantage. But even the new programming, it remains to be seen. Keep in mind that there are LPM [local people meter] markets that will still have continuous measurement. So well know how those markets did on the transition days. And for another group of markets we also have set meters, so we will be able to see household level tuning and if something crazy happens during that week. But I wouldnt have any original programming on during those two days.