Summer 1986 // Volume 24 // Number 2 // Feature Articles // 2FEA2

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Is Anyone Watching

Getting the message across via cable television.

Mary Beth Lang
Video Coordinator
Department of Agricultural Journalism
University of Wisconsin - Madison

Kristine L. Blacklock
Extension Home Economist
Cooperative Extension Service
University of Wisconsin - Sauk County

Boyd E. Bossing
Evaluation Specialist
Department of Continuing and Vocational Education,
University of Wisconsin - Madison

Since it first became available in the late 1960's, educators have examined community access cable television's potential as a tool for reaching new and larger audiences.

With each experience and experiment, Extension professionals ask the same questions. "Is anybody watching?" And if so, "Who are they?" Extension agents need to know the answers to these questions to help them decide if cable TV is worth the time and effort required.

A Nebraska study1 concluded cable television programming is a viable option that should be used in addition to, but not as a substitute for, other delivery methods. The study encouraged Extension staff, particularly those with large urban audiences, to consider cable TV as a delivery system.

Trempealeau County, in western Wisconsin, with 26,158 residents, no traffic lights, and no parking meters, provided an excellent testing ground for what cable television can mean to Extension staff with rural audiences.

In December, 1982, a telephone survey was conducted to find out who, if any, of the cable subscribers in Trempealeau County were watching Trempealeau County Community Television (TCCTV), a local access cable channel, and which of those viewers were tuning in to programs produced by local Extension agents.

TCCTV provides local access cable programming on a cable system owned and operated by the Western Wisconsin Communications Cooperative (WWCC). Created in 1973, WWCC is owned and controlled by the subscriber members and is the nation's first cable system that serves an entire rural county.

At the time of the survey, WWCC provided 10 channels of commercial programming and 1 access channel to 11 Trempealeau County communities. The 2,897 cable subscribers in Trempealeau County in December, 1982, represented 32% of all county households.

TCCTV has been on the cable system since March, 1981, with programs produced by local agencies, organizations, and individual citizens. Typical programming on TCCTV has included local musicians, events, and educational and religious programs. At the time of the survey, TCCTV was cablecasting from 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m. Monday through Wednesday.

The TCCTV Audience Viewing Survey was initiated by the Trempealeau County Cooperative Extension Service and other agencies concerned about audience viewership habits and preferences. A questionnaire was designed through cooperative efforts of the sponsoring agencies.2

To reach a high proportion of a random sample of cable subscribers, the survey was conducted through telephone interviews. A total of 239 interviews were completed with adults in 9 communities.

The characteristics of the respondents to the survey give an indication of the cable television audience in a rural county. This sample is probably not fully representative, since 75% of the respondents were female. However, no significant differences existed between male and female respondents in terms of age, education, household size, awareness, or viewing of TCCTV.

The average adult subscriber was much like anyone who watches TV-watching 3-5 hours a day, mostly in early evening and night hours. The early evening hours (6 p.m.-8 p.m., 73%) and night hours (8 p.m. on, 66%) were the most popular viewing hours. Noon to 1 p.m. was the least popular time to watch TV during the week (19%).

Among the survey respondents, 87% were aware of TCCTV, 78% had watched at least 1 TCCTV program, and 63% of all cable subscribers were regular weekly viewers of TCCTV. For this study, the TCCTV viewing audience was defined as those who had watched at least one TCCTV program (78% of all subscribers).

The TCCTV viewing audience included people of all ages. Eighty-seven percent of the respondents 60-90 years old were viewers; 78% of those 40-59 years old were viewers, and 71 % of those 18-39 years old were viewers.

This greater viewership by older respondents may reflect a special effort that was under way to explore using cable TV to deliver health and social services to older adults in rural areas.3 Older adults were also more likely to watch TV during the time TCCTV programming aired.

TCCTV viewers differed from other cable subscribers in some television viewing habits. They were more likely than the average subscriber to check listings in the newspaper. TCCTV viewers also tended to watch several channels. Eighty-six percent of those who usually watched 7-11 channels were TCCTV viewers, 75% of those who watched 3-6 channels were TCCTV viewers, and 69% of those who usually watched 1-2 channels were viewers.

TCCTV viewers didn't differ from other cable subscribers in how long they had subscribed to cable TV or why they subscribed. Nor did they differ in the number of hours of TV watched, when they watched TV, or by gender, education, or household size.

At the time of the survey, the University of Wisconsin-Extension Trempealeau County agents had been cablecasting a variety of programs. Those who said they'd watched TCCTV were asked how often they watched the programs presented by Extension agents.

"Down to Earth" was a weekly lawn and garden program presented by the agricultural agent. Fortythree percent of the people who said they'd watched TCCTV said they'd watched "Down to Earth." A majority (64%) s aid they watched the program once in a while; 16% reported watching once a week. Thirty-three percent of the viewers said they'd used information presented in the program.

The 4-H youth agent produced a weekly program on TCCTV called "Clover Corner," which highlighted the county's 4-H program. Seventeen percent of the people who had watched TCCTV had watched "Clover Corner." Most of these people (72%) reported watching the program once in a while; 13% watched every week. Most (66%) said they felt they understood the 4-H program better as a result of watching "Clover Corner." Most viewers (80%) had been or known someone who had been involved in a program. This implies many viewers may be friends or family members of 4-Hers who participated in events that were taped for "Clover Corner."

"Home and Family Spotlight" was a regular program presented by the home economist. Twenty percent of the people who watched TCCTV said they'd watched the program. Most people (81 %) reported watching the program once in a while; however, many older people (46%) reported watching once a month. Thirty-three percent of the people who watched "Home and Family Spotlight" said they'd used information presented on the program.

The county resource agent occasionally produced a program on TCCTV called "Community Comments. "Twenty-five percent of the people who said they'd watched TCCTV had watched "Community Comments." Most of these people (85%) reported watching once in a while. Seventeen percent of the viewers said they'd used information presented on the program. Nearly twice as many men as women said they'd watched "Community Comments."

It's interesting to note that different people watched the four program series. Of the people who had watched Extension programs, most reported watching one of the four series. Less than three percent of those who watched TCCTV had watched all four Extension programs. The combined reach of these Extension programs was 67% of all TCCTV viewers, representing 51 % of all cable subscribers.

Other than noted above, viewers of the Extension programs didn't differ from other cable subscribers in their TV viewing habits, age, gender, educational level, or occupation.

The Audience Viewing Survey also asked viewers about their personal involvement with TCCTV and how much they valued the local programming service.

The majority of viewers (60%) had either appeared on a TCCTV program, known someone on a program, or had taken part in program production.

On a five-point scale from "1 = not very important" to "5 = very important," 20% of the viewers indicated that TCCTV was a very important part of their cable service, and 67% rated TCCTV at importance 3 or above. When asked if they would be willing to pay an extra 25o per month on their cable bill to support TCCTV programming, 70% of the viewers said yes.

These findings reflect the local viewer identification, involvement, and support that's sought and apparently achieved in this community channel.

This survey of cable subscribers in Trempealeau County demonstrates several points:

  • Cable television can provide a way to reach large audiences in rural communities where cable service is available.
  • Local access viewers don't significantly differ from average cable subscribers.
  • Local access viewers will watch Extension programs. While Extension programs make up a small percentage of TCCTV programming, 67% of those who had watched the local access channel had watched an Extension program. These viewers represented 51 % of the total number of cable subscribers.
  • Viewers of Extension programs frequently use information that's presented.
  • Viewers consider community access programming an important part of their cable service.

Is anybody watching TCCTV? Yes, most cable subscribers are watching at least once a week. Is cable TV programming worth the Extension agent's time and effort? Yes, it is. Using cable television is certainly not ideal, but the benefits outweigh the limitations of resources and the continual work to maintain community support and viewership.

Experiences in Trempealeau County highlight three important factors that can determine the potential of community access cable programming for Extension:

  1. Strong local identification and involvement with the access channel. A number of local individuals, organizations, and agencies in addition to Extension are involved in producing programs on TCCTV in Trempealeau County. Broad community interest and involvement have translated into viewers.
  2. Potential to reach a large number of county residents. One cable system serves Trempealeau County's communities. At the time of the survey, over 63% of the households in those communities subscribed to cable. Working with a number of different cable systems in a county or area can be more difficult. 3.
  3. Community commitment to local access programming. TCCTV has a regular daytime and early evening programming schedule, a full-time production manager to help individuals and groups in producing programs, and a program schedule published in local TV listings. Without adequate equipment, staff, and program support, using cable television can be extremely difficult.

Extension professionals should consider these factors when they examine community access cable television opportunities in their counties.

Cable TV may not be an effective information or educational medium for every Extension agent, but, in Trempealeau and other counties, it's a resource that Extension can use to reach people with timely, important information.

  1. Using Cable Television as a Method for Delivering Information, Final Report of The Educable Study Committee (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Nebraska Cooperative Extension Service, Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, 1983), p. 3.
  2. Sponsoring agencies included: Western Wisconsin Agency on Aging Service Delivery Project, Trempealeau County Community Television, and University of Wisconsin-Extension.
  3. The Service Delivery Project was a national model project of the Administration on Aging. For more information on its activities and results of its efforts to use cable television to deliver services to senior citizens, contact Area Agency on Aging, 718 Clairemont Ave., Room 217, Eau Claire, WI 54701.