Nielsen Gives Fuzzy Picture of HDTV Penetration

Measurement giant Nielsen finally released estimates of high-definition-set penetration for both the United States and Local People Meter markets, and the numbers may surprise some consumer-electronics manufacturers and programmers. They might find them rather low—particularly given the recent momentum of HD-set sales and launches of HD networks.

They may also disappoint advertisers, which have long been seeking clarity on the actual size of the HD audience.

Nielsen found that only 11.3% of U.S. TV households, or some 12.7 million homes, are equipped with an HD television and tuner and receive HD programming. That is about 20% lower than the estimates of major cable programmers, who say that set-top data indicates that 15.5 million homes receive high-definition programming from their cable, satellite or telco provider. ESPN HD, for example, has 15 million subscribers. Perhaps another 500,000 homes get HD off-air, for a total of 16 million homes.

Nielsen found that another 2.4% of homes—2.8 million—have an HD set and tuner but don't use them to watch HD. While not in the report, Nielsen estimates that 21% of U.S. households, some 23.6 million, have a high-definition display, but not necessarily a high-def tuner.

That estimate suggests a much smaller HD universe than research from the Consumer Electronics Association, the trade group representing HDTV-set manufacturers. CEA estimated that HDTV household penetration in July 2007 stood at 32%—or some 36 million homes. CEA also put the total number of HDTV sets sold by year-end 2006 at 39.9 million, climbing to 60.6 million by the end of this year. It also said one-third of HD households own multiple sets. If that's the case, there would be only around 31 million HD displays, according to Nielsen, while CEA's projections would indicate closer to 50 million.