Monday, April 16, 2007

Switchover One-Year Recap: The Public

When I started this blog, I opened with a series of posts called "The Players", where I identified what I considered to be the main actors in the unfolding drama of the DTV transition. Since then, I've done twelve monthly recaps tracking the changes involving each group (The Public, Government, Broadcasting, Program Providers, HD Networks, and Manufacturers - retail being thrown in with Manufacturers). This series will look at what's happened in the last year, and ask a longer-term version of the question I ask in every monthly recap - what's changed?

Here's part of I said in my opening post regarding the public, on March 23rd of last year:
From everything I read, the lack of public awareness of what is scheduled to happen a bit less than 35 months from now is really stunning, although I really shouldn't be too surprised, given that the story has been buried in the Business/Tech sections of most newspapers. Given the place that TV has in most households, this should be page 1, above-the-fold news, and regulary featured in the network nightly newscasts.

Now here's something I reported on February 25th of this year:
Less optimistic are some findings from the Association of Public Television Stations. Surveying over-the-air viewers, they found that 61 percent had no idea the digital transition was taking place, and almost half (given a range of options as to what they would do to get digital signals) picked "do nothing" or "don't know".

So overall, we don't seem to have made a whole lot of progress. In fact, this has often been the section of my monthly recap with little or no new developments to report that month. That APTS survey referenced in the second quote was in fact the only major survey on the transition itself that I was able to turn up in the last year.

There were, however, some surveys on related matters, such as public understanding of HD and the use of HD programming by HDTV owners. Back in May, this CE Pro article reported findings from The Leichtman Group showing that only 43% of HDTV owners watched HD programming, and that the 57% of non-watchers broke down between 40% who knew they weren't watching, and 17% who mistakenly thought they were. Two months later, a study from In-Stat came up with even worse findings - their figures found that only 36 percent of HD set owners had HD service, and they speculated that the rapid spread of HD sets may mean that percentage might actually go down, even though the overall HD-watching audience continued to rise. Then in November, this study from Magid Associates found that only 47% of HD buyers in the previous year were motivated by the desire to watch HD programming, down from 63% two years prior (evidence that HDTV buying had spread far beyond its original videophile base). But by January there was still another study, this one showing that adoption of an HD service package by existing owners had now risen above the 50 percent mark (but it should be noted that this particular study came from CTAM, the Cable & Telecommunications Association for Marketing). There was also a Daily Variety article focusing on consumer confusion.

But whether the issue is the transition to digital broadcasting itself or just the available programming options it brings, it's clear that there's still a lot of awareness to spread. And some attempts have been made. One idea that struck me as especially promising was "The HDTV Expo", a proposed traveling roadshow organized by HDTV Magazine and Affinity Marketing LLC, which was announced in September. As I said then, the involvement of one of the pioneers in HDTV (Dale Cripps) makes me hopeful that these shows will be about much more than marketing. However, Dale has recently stated that sponsorship problems have caused the idea to be temporarily delayed. Hopefully the necessary people will get behind this concept as we get closer to the end of analog broadcasting.

Others tried as well. April '06 brought announcements of new initiatives from a CEA/NCTA team-up (that's the Consumer Electronics Association and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), followed by a May announcement from the NAB(National Association of Broadcasters). July brought another CEA team-up (this one with CTAM), as well as the announcement of two new HD-themed magazines (Resolution and 16:9 Magazine - the latter not to be confused with a Denver-area magazine of the same name covering independent film) for cable subscribers.

I'm not entirely sure what any of these efforts set out to do, or what they may have accomplished (I certainly didn't notice anything, and has anyone out there seen those new magazines I just mentioned?), but from the figures quoted above it's clear that more is needed. Which is where the biggest joint effort to date comes in, the recently-announced coalition between the CEA, NCTA and NAB, who've gotten together to plan a joint public service campaign, which has already won praise from House Energy and Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell. If groups representing cable companies can get together with groups representing broadcasters, it's a sure sign that someone is taking this seriously. Right now it only has this website, but this Multichannel News article shows that the NAB will be putting significant effort into this next year (we'll have to wait and see what the other groups will be doing).

Well, I certainly hope that it's more than smoke and mirrors this time, otherwise we may well see the "tsunami of public outrage" FCC Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein warned us about back in March of '06.

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