On four different occasions since early 2004, I’ve used information from the Television Bureau of Advertising web site (click “Cable & ADS” on the right navigation) to determine the number of households that use over-the-air reception (OTA) exclusively (that is, not counting antenna reception by secondary and tertiary receivers in wired cable and ADS homes). The term ADS refers to SMATV, MMDS, large-dish satellite, and DBS, and currently 30.6% of the 30.9% total ADS households are DBS subscribers.
On a tab labeled “ADS and Wired-Cable Penetration by DMA,” you’ll find for May 2011 a table of the 210 Nielsen DMA’s which contains a column labeled “% Cable and/or ADS” (there being a small percentage of homes that have both). If you subtract the numbers in this column from 100, you’ll get the OTA numbers for each market. No need to use some lame telephone survey to estimate this as the Consumer Electronics Association did in December 2010; TVB.org has it for just a little copy/paste work in Excel.
The first time I did this using November 2003 data, OTA-exclusives came up to 19.7M households. My most recent effort prior to this week used September 2006 data, and that showed 14.6M households (13.1% of TVHH). The one I did yesterday showed 11.1M households (9.6% of TVHH). ADS is now at an all-time high, so the addition of local channels to DBS has resulted in another decline in OTA.
So, yes, it’s falling and, yes, it’s gotten pretty low as a nationwide average. That’s some higher than the 8% in the CEA’s phone survey mentioned above that’s gotten some circulation (e.g., “Spectrum Reform Now” in The Technology Liberation Front blog).
From a public policy standpoint in a democracy, a national average of doesn’t mean a lot if there is a high “standard deviation” in the numbers that make up the average – and that’s the case here. There are 535 members of Congress who get to weigh in on what to do with spectrum policy, and when the Boise DMA has 30% OTA usage (antennas exclusively), four members of Congress get to have a vested interest. Ditto, when Los Angeles has 720,000 antenna-only households (13%), about 30 members of Congress have a vested interest. As L.A. proves, it’s not just rural markets – 15 of the top 50 DMA have 12.5% or greater OTA-exclusive usage. On the other hand, Congress members in New York City, Connecticut and Massachusetts might wonder what the fuss is about.
It’s that political complexity, fueled by the fact that OTA homes have a greater economic impact to stations (especially for public television which has underwriting and individual giving driven by viewing) than do homes with multi-channel programmers – perhaps double the value per household by my own guesstimate.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that freeing up additional wireless spectrum from broadcasters and others – voluntarily and properly compensated – ultimately is a good thing because services on multipurpose devices wireless and wired internet provides will be at least as important to broadcasters in the not too distant future as broadcast spectrum services will be. We broadcasters need it as much as anyone.
But let’s get our data right and make decisions based on understanding complexities, not over-simplifying for political expediency. Thanks to the TVB for their goldmine of information. --Dennis