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Television ownership slips: is it economy or a digital shift?

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Nielsen discloses 2% fewer households own TV sets. Is it the economy, or a shift to computers for information and entertainment?

There's been plenty of discussion about the rise of social media over traditional television networks as a conveyer of breaking news. Now, there is news that the actual number of television sets themselves within US households has begun to decline.

The New York Times cites a report from the Nielsen Company, which estimates that 96.7% of American households now own sets, down from 98.9% previously.  Ninety-seven percent is still pretty high, but a drop of two percentage points is notable. The market research company surveyed 50,000 households.

Why? Two theories: economics, in which low-income households cannot afford the digital sets or converter boxes required to receive signals; or the fact that many people are turning to their computers for entertainment.

Nielsen says the economic factor may make sense, since television set ownership also dropped in 1992, immediately following the recession of that time.

But the shift to online viewing can't be ignored. Nielsen has additional research that confirms the growing shift from traditional television viewing to online activities, or part of what it calls "time-shifted" media.In fact, they estimate that in January 2011, the month the survey was taken, 143.9 million Americans viewed video online.

Traditional TV versus the Web isn't an either/or proposition, of course. "The audience overlap between visitors to network and broadcast media sites and social networking & blog sites is significant," Nielsen reports. "In January 2011 alone, 49 percent of social networking & blog site visitors also visited TV network and broadcast media sites."

If this trend continues, it will mark a shift unthinkable at any time in the past half-century: an actual decline in the number of televisions. But no one could have imagined the decline of landline phones either. And, importantly, information and entertainment is still being consumed, just via a greater variety of devices.

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure