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Newsflash: Fewer Americans Own TVs

Fewer Americans own TV sets these days, research firm Nielsen has found. Nielsen says it expects a drop in the number of U.S. households with a television set for the first time in 20 years. Nielsen says that the decrease likely has to do with two factors: poverty and the rise of high-tech alternatives.

114.7 million households will own a television in 2012, down from 115.9 million this year. This may be a small decrease, but it does seem to suggest the television as an entertainment device could be falling out of style with today's consumer.

What's behind the drop?

Nielsen speculates that the transition from analog to digital television signals may have contributed to the decline, because poor families may not be able to afford the additional equipment required to receive the broadcasts. I don't buy this reasoning, personally, because the set-top conversion boxes (and the antennas) were offered at quite a low price and even subsidized.

A more likely explanation is the rise in high-tech alternatives. Arguably, there is not much of a reason to own a TV anymore when most of the content is available online. Nielsen notes a "small subset of younger, urban consumers" is passing on paid TV subscriptions, which seems to confirm this.

"Long-term effects of this are unclear, as it's undetermined if this is also an economic issue, with these individuals entering the TV marketplace once they have the means, or the beginning of a larger shift to viewing online and on mobile devices," Nielsen says.

At least anecdotally, I can confirm this idea. I have several college-aged acquaintances who do not own a television at all. At least one of my friends told me that TVs are worthless, because he watches all the programs he needs, online.

Time to reconsider what a 'TV household' is?

Carriers such as Comcast and Time Warner are increasingly embracing streaming content, in an attempt to stay relevant.

This shift is causing Nielsen to reevaluate how it measures a "TV audience." Nielsen says it will begin looking into ways to account for those viewing content over the Internet as part of its measurements.

I think this is probably the biggest single piece of evidence that streaming content is nearing critical mass--those who use Nielsen's data appear very interested in (or for the cable/satellite companies, concerned about) the changes in consumer's media consumption habits. Those changes will likely have massive implications for how they do business--from selling ads, to planning out their programming strategies, and so forth.

For more tech news and commentary, follow Ed on Twitter at @edoswald and on Facebook.

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