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Census Data Show Surge in Homes With Televisions

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Data from the 2000 census have provided national television networks some welcome news, as updated Nielsen Media Research figures for the 2001-02 television season expand the pool of U.S. households with television to 105.4 million--representing the most significant year-to-year surge in two decades.

Based on the new census data, the ratings service reported a 3% jump--a net gain of more than 3.2 million households since 1999. Nielsen annually projects household levels for each of the 210 markets that the service individually measures--from the largest, New York City, down to Glendive, Mont.--using mathematical models and government statistics.

The overall increase was surpassed only by the one that followed the 1980 census. Traditionally, the number of TV households has been estimated to grow by roughly a million per year. More than 98% of all U.S. homes currently have at least one television set, according to Nielsen.

“This is the biggest [increase] I’ve seen,” said Nielsen spokesman Jack Loftus.

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The adjusted figures--effective with the TV season that officially begins in September--are beneficial to national broadcasters, which face sluggish advertising sales and continued ratings erosion as audience is lost to cable and other leisure-time alternatives. Spending on the so-called upfront market, in which networks sell advance advertising, fell by roughly $1 billion in prime time this year.

“The audience doesn’t change, but the amount of it that gets counted does,” said David Poltrack, executive vice president of research and planning at CBS, a unit of Viacom Inc. “You don’t exist until Nielsen counts you, in terms of the economic reality of television.”

Although the major networks’ percentage of the viewing pie has steadily declined, that has been offset in part by consistent population growth. The revised number of U.S. households with television is 15% higher than a decade ago, allowing networks to continue reaching a mass audience and remain valuable to advertisers.

The ratings service is still working on demographic data in regard to actual viewers, Loftus said.

Nielsen’s latest figures also highlight regional trends that will affect individual markets. The Los Angeles viewing area, for example, remains the second largest behind New York but saw its size decline by 1%, to about 5.3 million homes, from the estimated 2000-01 TV season audience.

“It’s not alarming,” said Bill Johnson, who oversees research at KABC-TV in Los Angeles, part of Walt Disney Co. “They usually have some sort of correction when the final census numbers come out.”

By contrast, New York rose slightly, to 7.3 million homes. New York and Los Angeles still jointly account for almost 12% of all U.S. homes with television.

San Diego lost 20,000 homes from the year-earlier estimate and slipped from 25th to 26th--behind Indianapolis--in terms of market size. The news was especially bad, meanwhile, for television stations in Glendive, where population estimates dropped by a fifth, from 4,880 to 3,900 homes.


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