Written by TV

Digital Switchover – US Style

What on earth is going on in the States?
As UK readers will almost certainly know, we’re currently embarking on digital switchover. That’s to say that by 2012, nobody will be able to watch TV in the UK without some kind of digital box. Sky hopes that will be via their system (and they posted excellent results today), Virgin Media through their system, but for perhaps the majority of people (if not TV sets) it will be via Freeview.
According to Ofcom, 88.2% of households currently have digital TV in some form or another, which is a great place to be, but 40% of secondary sets like those in bedrooms, kitchens and offices, have yet to be converted.
It’s a challenge, and one that’s concerned me for a while. But the plan has been to roll full switchover out on a channel by channel basis, region by region. It started in the Borders region which is lightly populated and allows time to take learnings from it before attempting big metropolitan areas. As far as I’m aware, everything remains on track.
In the US it’s a different story. Many more people receive their TV via cable, and that’s relatively unaffected by digital switchover. Far fewer homes use rooftop aerials or set-top “rabbit ears” to receive over-the-air pictures. But those who do still use such methods are inevitably older and poorer.
The method the US decided to take was to set a single date, February 17 2009, for the whole country to switchover. They put in place a coupon system: you could apply for a coupon with a value of $40. This could then be put towards a digital converter box (effectively the equivalent of a Freeview box) which plugs into your TV as normal. Of course, like Freeview, many recent model TVs have this receiver technology built-in, although that information doesn’t seem to be as widely known as it might.
But there were some problems. First, when the coupon system was introduced, no cheaper boxes were available. Consumers were expecting some boxes to priced as low as $40, effectively making them free. But the cheaper boxes came online relatively late.
The scheme also had finite funding. Coupons expired after 90 days, so you had to buy promptly when you received them. And now, as D-day approaches, the scheme’s run out of money. Upwards of 100,000 people are on a coupon waiting list. They’re waiting for unused coupons to expire before the cash set aside can be put towards new coupons.
The date set was in February, and of course TV stations have been preparing for this date for a long time. One problem with the February date was that it falls in a “sweeps” period.
The US TV market isn’t able to measure all stations in the country all year around – overnight data is only available for larger markets. So four times a year, a diary method is used to measure every station’s ratings. These are the sweeps periods, and key to them is desperately ensuring that you have your best and newest programming available during them.
[As an aside, to my mind this is a fundamentally flawed system. The ratings that come from these periods are used as the basis for vast advertising sales, yet stations have used every trick in the book to maximise their ratings during this period. They might have saved up new episodes of series that had otherwise been in repeats, and they have special guest stars and events that aren’t representative of other times of the year].
Such is the concern over digital switchover that the February sweeps period this year has been moved to March. And big events like the Oscars were considered for moving. Broadcasters were concerned that a significant proportion of its audience simply won’t be able to see its programming.
Estimates of how many people are unprepared vary, but it’s clear that the number is in the millions of homes.
Criticism has been widespread.
Then on Tuesday, the Senate voted to delay the switchover until June 12.
So all of a sudden, something that was going to happen in just over two weeks, is getting a five month delay. Obama was said to be in favour of this. More time would be available to get those last homes converted: as I always say, who wants to be the politician that takes away someones TV?
But now the House has voted against this delay.
Digital transition will take place in two weeks’ time after all.
Confused? You will be… after this week’s… digital switchover.
I’m not sure that anyone could have made a bigger mess over this if they’d tried. Will it happen on February 17 now? We’ll just have to wait and see. But you can be sure it’ll be the poor, the minorities and the elderly that will lose out.
(Oh, and of course this isn’t the biggest story in US media – they’re more concerned about adverts in this Sunday’s Superbowl…)