The New York upfronts are an exciting time, nothing less than a weeklong celebration of broadcasting, but they ultimately determine nothing but who will win the ratings crown for one broadcast TV season. The far less glamorous business taking place at the ATSC and FCC will determine ultimately whether there will be a broadcast TV season.
The Big Four dominated the upfronts that culminated in New York this week. The media, old and new, dutifully reported and analyzed the broadcast networks’ primetime pickups, cancellations and strategies. I’m looking forward to Fox’s I Wanna Marry Harry.
All the attention showed that somehow or other ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox still preside atop the TV food chain over the baying masses of cable networks and digital upstarts.
But the New York upfronts only tell you about broadcasting’s immediate future — the upcoming the 2014-15 TV season. If you want real insight on where the industry is heading — on its long-term viability — you have to go to Washington.
There, the Advanced Television Systems Committee is working on the next-generation TV system — ATSC 3.0 — that will, it is hoped, allow broadcasters to keep pace in the evolution of video quality and become a truly mobile medium.
There, too, the FCC is marching forward with its plans to reallocate a huge swatch of spectrum from broadcasting to wireless broadband through an incentive auction. The plans involve a repacking or a reorganization of the TV band that could severely hobble broadcasting if not done right.
For broadcasters, the latest news from the two Washington venues is not good.
Let’s start with the ATSC. A schism seems to be developing. Threatening to break away are the Sinclair Broadcast Group and perhaps others who believe that the next-gen standard should be optimized for mobile by using the same basic technology that is being used in smartphones.
Mark Aitken, the chief technologist at Sinclair, is convinced that the ATSC is now putting too much emphasis on delivering pictures to the big screen in the living room and not enough to the little screen on phones.
“When you dig in deep, what you find out is truly mobile is a secondary function,” Aitken told TVNewsCheck. “As a result of that, you end up with sub-optimal approaches being applied to mobility that don’t match up well against the need to harmonize across many [wireless] standards.”
Sinclair and partner Coherent Logix have come up with a system that they believe does harmonize with wireless standards.
If they can’t move the ATSC in their direction, Aitken has strongly suggested that they are prepared to implement it with or without the imprimatur of the ATSC. To do that, they would need a flexible-use waiver from the FCC.
I hope it doesn’t come to that. In discussing this with broadcast engineers, several recalled AM stereo. In the late 1970s, several companies came forward with stereo systems. But the industry couldn’t settle on a single standard and neither could the FCC. So the FCC threw it to the marketplace in 1982, saying that stations could broadcast any standard they wanted and manufacturers could build radios to any standard it wanted.
It was a disaster. AM stereo failed and the AM band missed out on a feature that might have given it new life as a music medium.
I don’t think next-generation broadcasting survives if consumers are faced with receivers built to two standards.
That said, I see where Aitken and the mobile-firsters are coming from. Mobile is where the action is. Smartphones are becoming personal TV sets. You reach them or you die a slow death.
One of the critical roles broadcasting fills in our society is that of alerting the public to impending dangers and keeping them informed during and after disasters. It has distinguished broadcasting in the cable era, especially among Washington policy makers.
But broadcasting cannot continue to fulfill that role if it can’t broadcast to the phones that fit in a pocket and operate on batteries.
As I understand it, the Sinclair/Coherent Logix idea is to make it as easy as possible for manufacturers of smartphones to enable broadcast reception by using LTE and software-defined radio technology.
It makes sense. You cannot expect manufacturers to integrate some new broadcast reception technology in mobile devices or wireless carriers to endorse it. Those are absolute non-starters. The industry’s dismal experience with mobile DTV should have taught us that much.
What I don’t know is how many other broadcasters are ready to follow Sinclair out the door. Aitken says there are some. But so far, none has stood up to be counted.
At the ATSC annual conference in Washington last week, ATSC officials and members tried to downplay the possibility of a schism. In comments during a session I moderated, Aitken asserted that he was “not intent on derailing the ATSC process.”
But that remark only served as a prelude to a restatement of his “very fundamental belief that mobile is being shorted in this [ATSC] process by virtue of the fact that we’re starting with a terrestrial fixed service and trying to feed mobile input.”
It didn’t sound to me as if he were backing off.
Of course, the whole next-gen standard effort may come to nothing if the FCC screws up the TV band as a result of the post-auction spectrum repacking.
Yesterday, the FCC adopted its first batch of auction and repacking rules. As is often the case, the FCC didn’t immediately release the rules, but from what can be gleaned from press releases and the statements of the commissioners, things did not go well for over-the-air TV.
Among other things, the FCC codified its plan to use “updated TVStudy computer software and current data” in calculating the coverage areas of stations in assigning stations new channels during the repack.
The FCC is obliged by law to make “all reasonable efforts” to preserve stations’ current coverage area. The NAB is convinced the TVStudy is nothing less than a formula for squeezing stations too tightly into the band and reducing how many people they can reach.
“The order today threatens diverse programming sources and diminishes a vibrant free and local news, entertainment and information source for millions of Americans who can’t afford $200 a month pay TV and broadband bills,” groused NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton after the vote.
“NAB will pursue every avenue to get the auction back on track.”
The New York upfronts are an exciting time, nothing less than a weeklong celebration of broadcasting, but they ultimately determine nothing but who will win the ratings crown for one broadcast TV season.
The far less glamorous business taking place in ATSC and FCC meeting rooms will determine ultimately whether there will be a broadcast TV season.