Nielsen reports a drop in American household TV ownership in America

A new report from Nielsen suggests fewer American households have televisions:

The Nielsen Company, which takes TV set ownership into account when it produces ratings, will tell television networks and advertisers on Tuesday that 96.7 percent of American households now own sets, down from 98.9 percent previously.

There are two reasons for the decline, according to Nielsen. One is poverty: some low-income households no longer own TV sets, most likely because they cannot afford new digital sets and antennas.

The other is technological wizardry: young people who have grown up with laptops in their hands instead of remote controls are opting not to buy TV sets when they graduate from college or enter the work force, at least not at first. Instead, they are subsisting on a diet of television shows and movies from the Internet.

Nielsen suggests that affordability is really behind this drop in TV set ownership. But of consumer goods that are truly American, isn’t having a television at the top of the list? More than owning a car or a home (granted, these are more expensive) or a radio or a microwave (a lower ownership rate than TVs according to this), the television is a critical part of average American life. And with all of the purchases in recent years of nicer TV sets (LCD, plasma, 3D, LED, digital tuners), there are plenty of older TVs laying out or available for a low price at garage sales, consignment shops, and on Craigslist.

It makes sense that Nielsen is very interested in these figures. Nielsen’s methodology may not seem important to some people but these ratings are incredibly important for the TV industry. These ratings help set advertising rates which drive the industry and dictate which shows survive on the air and which do not. If ratings go up (whether that is because the show is more popular or because Nielsen can show that more people watch it), then networks can ask for more money.

If household TV ownership rates keep dropping, how might this affect the TV industry and TV networks?

The next biggest US TV network: Univision

Amidst lower ratings and numerous articles about how to avoid TV all together, the big four American TV networks have some major competition: Univision. With already decent ratings and a growing Hispanic population, Univision may just be the network of the future:

With double-digit ratings growth this season, Spanish-language broadcaster Univision is off to a better start than any of the major English-language networks, and the future is promising as well.

The new census is expected to show a nearly 45% increase in the number of Hispanic Americans since 2000, to a total of 50 million. This couples with continuing audience erosion at the major networks and Univision’s recent deal with Mexican programer Grupo Televisa, which locks up the source of much the network’s popular programing for at least another decade.

Just a few years ago, the notion of Univision catching and surpassing them would have had mainstream network executives rolling with laughter. They’re not laughing now.

And they’re not talking publicly about it either: When asked to comment, the Big Four nets refused.

So while the big 4 networks are chasing edgy 18-49 year olds (or older viewers), Univision is capitalizing on the big demographic changes taking place in America.

How will the big 4 networks respond? They have been having troubles for years, losing viewers to cable and other media. Might we see some crossover programming from Univision and other Spanish-language stations reach the air through older broadcast networks?