NATPE 2019

Abernethy: Stations Need To Get With 3.0

Fox stations chief Jack Abernethy used NATPE to stress the importance of the new tech. Its rollout and the services it enables, he said, is being held back by broadcasters’ short-term thinking and their inability to work with each other and to grasp the technology’s non-TV potential.

ATSC 3.0 is a “huge opportunity,” said Fox TV stations head Jack Abernethy during an on-stage interview at NATPE on Wednesday.

But the rollout of the new broadcast standard and the services it enables, he said, is being held back by broadcasters’ short-term thinking and their inability to work with each other and to grasp the technology’s non-TV potential.

If you ask a broadcaster what he thinks of the future, he said, he’ll tell you about advertising in the second quarter. “You can’t do that with 3.0,” he said. “It’s a long-term play.”

What’s more, because broadcasters have always been regulated, they are not good at working together, he said. “There is a history of competition and a history of fragmentation. This thing requires you to pool spectrum.”

Finally, broadcasters don’t see the potential for using spectrum for data services. But that’s OK because eventually they will. “If we create this pipe and get it up and running, there will be opportunities.”

During the half-hour interview conducted by Variety’s Cynthia Littleton, Abernethy also grumbled about the FCC ownership rules that limit the number of stations groups may own nationally and locally. “It’s sort of nutty that we are restricted to certain limitation when some of these companies that can scale are not.”

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But part of the reason the national ownership rules persist is that broadcasters cannot reach a consensus on what the rules should be, he said.

“Everybody has their own little agenda so there is no one leading that effort on behalf of consumers and the industry … [which] would be much healthier without the ownership limits.”

Last year, Fox agreed to buy seven Tribune Fox affiliates that Sinclair would spin off from its merger with Tribune. That deal died when the FCC rejected the merger.

Asked if Fox were still interested in buying the stations from Nexstar, now that it is the group acquiring Tribune, Abernethy side-stepped. “We are under an NDA, but that [Sinclair] deal worked for us” because the stations fit the Fox station profile.

Fox remains interested in adding stations in markets with NFL and major college football teams and are “strong in news,” he said. “Those are the kinds of things we see as opportunities.”

Abernethy said he wasn’t concerned about others — particularly OTT steaming services — moving in on broadcasters’ local news turf.

“A lot of people have tried this local and have had limited success. It’s hard. We have boots on the ground. We have sales teams that know the local advertisers. We have news people who are plugged into the community. So, we have a big advantage there.”

Bouyed by the heavy political spending in the last quarter of 2018, Abernethy said the short-term outlook for the business is positive.

However, he added, “none of us that think carefully about the future are giddy,” given the pace of change in television.

He said that he wouldn’t put too much weight on macro economics in trying to assess prospects for broadcasting. The general economic indicators and the broadcasting business “don’t always track.”

With Fox’s decision to focus on sports and other live programming like news, there will be less time for conventional entertainment programming on the network schedule, he said.

Even so, entertainment is no less important to the network, he said. Fox can “really succeed” with a couple of big hits, he said. “We were very encouraged by Masked Singer. The live-plus-seven was huge.”

Read more NATPE 2019 coverage here.


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