Digital TV Switch Could Cost Broadcast TV 1-2% of Audience

Categories: TV Business

Written By

December 10th, 2008

We know that cable networks have been taking audience from broadcast networks for more than a generation and that trend is likely to continue. I've long thought that the coming transition to digital only TV broadcasting (February 17, 2009) will be a unique one time event providing a bump to the cable network audience to further that shift. TVWeek has an interview with the chief research officer of Turner Broadcasting which has some interesting numbers.

Some of which we show all the time on our site:

In prime time, cable viewing is up 10% while the Big Four broadcasters are down 7%. Among adults 18 to 49, cable is up 9% and broadcast is off 11%.

In the first few months of the broadcast season, the six network broadcasters have lost 2.6 million total viewers and 2.2 million viewers in the 18- to 49-year-old demographic—an unprecedented drop.


37 cable networks are seeing record ratings, including five of the top 10, showing that smaller cable networks haven’t been cannibalizing the big cable networks.

But these numbers on the digital transition caught my eye:

in broadcast-only homes getting ready for the digital transition, about 37% are switching to satellite or cable. The others are either getting new sets or buying converter boxes.

Before making the change, 93% of the viewing was of English-language broadcast stations. Afterwards, 41% of viewing went to broadcast and 54% went to English-language cable.

Assuming these numbers are correct, the broadcast networks could lose 1-2% of their audience from the digital TV switch alone. Something they can ill afford in a season of double digit declines for most.

    Share of Total US TV Viewers
Total US TV Viewers (000s)  289,950 100%
Viewers with OTA only (000s)  31,204 10.8%
Share that will get cable/satellite 37%  
Viewers that will get cable/satellite (000s)  11,545 4.0%
Share of viewing to cable networks 41%  
Viewers shifting from broadcast to cable networks (000s)  4,734 1.6%

These are very back of the envelope calculations and lack lots of information that might make them more precise like the different viewing amounts of over the air households, their demographic breakdowns, etc that could possibly improve the comparisons for the broadcasters. Also, the Nielsen panel won't be adjusted again until sometime during 2009 for the 2009-10 season, so the measurement of this one time shift is going to be a bit lacking for a while.

Market estimates are for January 1, 2009 and are from Nielsen TV Ratings Data: ©2008 The Nielsen Company. All Rights Reserved. Viewing pattern changes are from the TVWeek article.

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