Sunday, May 8, 2011

Television ownership declines, especially amongst rural Americans.

The New York Times reports that The Nielsen Company, the organization responsible for issuing weekly television viewership ratings and other related data, revealed that television ownership amongst Americans has dropped for the first time in 20 years. Now 96.7 percent of American households own sets, down from 98.9 percent previously. Nielsen postulates that there are two main reasons for the decline, including recession-based poverty and web-based television replacements. Many of those reporting that they do not own a TV live in rural areas. After a semester of Law and Rural Livelihoods, this is not surprising to me. As the article points out, the reason why TV sets are declining in rural areas is because of the double-whammy of resource and access deficiency.

As Nielsen's research indicates, many TV-less households generally have incomes under $20,000. Because a TV is not an essential commodity like food or gas to commute, if the TV is broken or its technology is outdated, it likely won't be replaced in a low-income household. And as we know, rural places tend to have higher concentrations of low-income people, especially poverty-persistent counties.

Furthermore, access to digital broadcasting is less reliable in rural areas. In 2009, the federal government switched from analog broadcasting, making many TV sets technologically-obsolete. Moreover, some rural areas don't even receive digital signals that are strong enough for broadcasting. Unless you can afford a satellite dish, watching TV is not an option even if you have a working TV set.

The digital divide is encroaching on more than just web-browsing now that TVs are more and more often replaced by computers. Nielsen in part attributes the drop in TV ownership to people who are watching TV on their computers, but from other blog posts, we know that those people probably aren't rural TV viewers because internet access is too slow to make watching TV online feasible.

Those who choose to live without TV may wonder why this matters. I would argue that no matter what you think about the quality of American television, it is a lens through which to experience parts of our culture, obtain news, or seek respite from a stressful day. I don't have a TV, but I certainly watch a TV show every now and then on my computer. Also, I'm so glad I could watch the President's address about the growing deficit and later, his speech about Bin Laden's death, in real time and without the filter of a newspaper. It seems unfair that rural Americans are unable to do the same just because they live in remote areas and may not have the economic resources necessary to keep up with changing technology. It is just another example of how rural America gets left behind.

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