Gaps in Digital TV Coverage: Study

Millions of analog television sets will be unable to receive digital over-the-air broadcasts when full-power TV stations are required to stop transmitting analog signals next February, according to a study by market research firm Centris.

The firm examined digital TV coverage in Las Vegas, Philadelphia and St. Louis, using models to determine how many broadcast stations could be received in ZIP codes within five-mile intervals of the TV towers in those three markets.

Federal Communications Commission data indicates that digital TV signals are available in a 60- to 75-mile radius around towers. However, Centris found that there was little continuous coverage beyond 35 miles.

For example, Centris estimated that in Philadelphia, about 100,000 over-the-air households, or 5% of 2 million total, would be unable to receive a digital TV signal from at least one broadcaster. In Las Vegas, 2.5% of OTA households would be unable to get at least one local DTV station, while the figure in St. Louis was 10%.

"If you like Fox, and you like football, you may be in trouble," Centris senior vice president Barry Goodstadt said.

The study's estimates are conservative, Goodstadt said, because they assume consumers will have a small or medium-size omnidirectional antenna installed on their roof. Today, he said, upward of 80% of over-the-air households have only set-top antennas.

That means digital-to-analog converter boxes, which Wal-Mart Stores, Best Buy, RadioShack and other retailers will begin selling this month, may not be enough for some TV sets to continue receiving over-the-air broadcasts. The National Telecommunications and Information Association is supplying 33.5 million coupons for $40 toward a DTV converter, with the first ones set to be distributed next week.

"Consumers are being urged to purchase equipment that may or may not work when they bring it home – never before has such an important transition been conducted on a trial-and-error basis,” Centris executive vice president David Klein said, in announcing the research. “The reality is, if consumers want guaranteed 'free' TV, they will have to pay for it."

Consumers can only be assured their analog TVs will continue to work by signing up for a cable, satellite or telco video service, Centris noted.

Centris's clients include cable operators and public television broadcasters, but Goodstadt said the DTV research was not funded by a third party.

Centris estimates that more than 40 million households currently receiving over-the-air analog signals in the U.S., for a combined total of as many as 117 million analog TV sets that are not connected to cable or satellite video services.

Those figures exceed the government’s estimate that 21 million U.S. households have analog sets and receive only over-the-air signals. Goodstadt said the government does not take into account about 19 million households that have cable or satellite TV, but also have analog sets that aren't connected to those services. Meanwhile, the Consumer Electronics Association has projected that between 22 million and 28 million analog TVs will still be in use by Feb. 2009. 

Many Americans are in the dark about the DTV transition. Almost one-third of Americans with analog TVs are unaware that they will need additional equipment to continue receiving commercial TV broadcasts, according to a Consumer Reportsresearch study conducted in December. 

A Centris survey in November 2007 found that even among those who are aware of the DTV transition, only 56% could correctly state when the analog transmission is scheduled to stop.