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Execs Hoping for Trouble-Free DTV Switch

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Amid all the sturm und drang over a possible delay in the transition to digital television, there’s been little discussion over the impact on ratings and the ad marketplace. Whether the deadline sticks at Feb. 17 or gets pushed off to May or June, millions of missing TV households could negatively impact ratings to over-the-air broadcast stations.

According to the most recent data from Nielsen, 6.8 percent of TV households nationwide would see snow if the transition had happened in December. That figure varies widely by market, with the highest ranges in Albuquerque-Santa Fe, N.M. (13 percent unprepared), Tulsa, Okla. (12.7 percent), Houston (12.4 percent), Dallas-Ft. Worth (11.7 percent) and Salt Lake City (10.6).

But just because a significant number of households in some markets haven’t made the digital switch, agencies aren’t convinced they can tease out any potential ratings impact.
There’s still no way of knowing how many households will take last-minute steps to get ready, not to mention technical and equipment snafus. “Even if there is a drastic drop, does that really represent the unready DTV households or true viewing? We’ve never gone through this, so we don’t really know,” said Janice Finkel-Greene, executive vp of futures and technology, Initiative. “We also don’t know if some of those households will fall out of [Nielsen’s] sample.”

Agencies are resigned to wing it. “We’ll have to look at it on a case-by-case basis,” said Ellen Drury, president of local broadcast for GroupM Matrix.

Posting will be problematic at best, which is why Nielsen moved the February sweeps to March. That may be especially true for the Hispanic stations targeting a segment that may be less prepared than others.

The industry had a ratings laboratory in Wilmington, N.C., where all local stations went digital Sept. 8 (Hawaiian stations made the transition last week). However, November ratings for Wilmington, recently issued by Nielsen (which owns Mediaweek), were muddied by a significant change in methodology to address-based sampling, which helps Nielsen include cell-phone-only (and usually younger) households in its samples. “We can’t tell if the ratings were affected by the DTV switch or the methodology change,” said Bill McDowell, vp of research for Raycom Media, which owns NBC affiliate WECT, the ratings leader in the market. Both WECT and WWAY, the ABC affiliate, saw significant ratings drops. WSFX, the younger-skewing Fox affiliate, did not. “We lost viewers but we think it was due to the change in the demography of the sample,” added McDowell.

If there is a ratings blip, TV stations are crossing their fingers it will be short-lived, as TV fans with no signal take quick steps. “I don’t expect 50 percent ratings drops, more like from an 8 to a 7.2,” said Doug Lowe, executive vp of Meredith Broadcasting Group.