Sam Matheny, the association’s new EVP and chief technology officer, says he’s trying to identify the major trends and threats so broadcasters can stay competitive. Among items on his plate: working with ATSC and broadcasters on the development of a next-generation TV that has to be robust enough — and flexible enough — to serve the needs of any broadcast business plan.
When Sam Matheny started his new job this summer as EVP and chief technology officer of NAB, he didn’t have to waste any time getting up to speed on broadcasting issues or building relationships with other key broadcast technologists. Unlike his predecessor Kevin Gage, who left NAB in the spring for Sinclair’s ONE Media, Matheny is a broadcast insider.
The 42-year-old Matheny joined NAB from Capitol Broadcasting, a small Raleigh, N.C.-based station group where he was VP of policy and innovation. Over the years, Capitol has built a reputation for pioneering technologies and in recent years Matheny has been a big part of that tradition.
Prior to joining the corporate staff in 2012, Matheny was a principal in several Capitol Broadcasting media ventures, including News Over Wireless, which provided the first local television news applications for wireless carriers, and DTV Plus, which developed and launched the nation’s first DTV datacasting service.
In this interview with TVNewsCheck Editor Harry A. Jessell, Matheny says he is trying to identify opportunities three-to-five years out that broadcasters can exploit to stay competitive. He’s also focused on issues of more immediate concern, primarily ATSC’s development of a next-generation broadcast. He wants to make sure it’s robust and flexible enough to serve the needs of all broadcasters.
An edited transcript:
What do you see as your role? What are your marching orders?
First and foremost, my job is to work for the long-term health of the broadcast industry and that’s really what I see as my role. Specifically, obviously, I am going to be very focused on new technologies and their being applied to help keep broadcasters become as advanced as they can be.
And I’m really looking not so much at today, tomorrow or next week or next quarter as I am three-to-five-plus years out and really trying to see what the major trends are, what the new technologies coming down the pike are, what the new opportunities are — as well as new threats.
So what are some of those opportunities?
One of the opportunities is FM chips in mobile phones. I am calling that a near-term opportunity in that three-to-five-year range and certainly it’s already something that is being worked on today. FM chips are already being put in phones — they’re there now today — but they’re just not being activated in large numbers by the carriers. We think that that’s something that’s a very real opportunity.
What about the TV side? What’s happening there?
One of the big things, obviously, is the work that’s taking place within the ATSC and the discussions around the next-generation broadcast standard and the opportunities that it presents.
I know that Sinclair is engaged with ATSC and so is the Pearl group [a consortium of major TV stations groups]. What does NAB bring to the party?
What the NAB brings is the whole broadcast industry. I really want to applaud what Pearl is doing, what Sinclair is doing. I think that it’s great. They are really demonstrating how engaged broadcasters are, but this is larger than any one group or any collection of station groups. Part of my job is really going to work with all broadcasters and have them feed into the NAB TV technology committee as well as the ATSC so that we can move together as an entire industry, not just parts and pieces.
So what’s happening at ATSC right now? My read is that the consumer electronics manufacturers were dominating the process, but that broadcasters have been asserting themselves more lately in hopes of developing a standard that meets their needs, not just those of the manufacturers.
I guess I see the whole thing as a symbiotic relationship. There are a lot of different players in there and we all have to work together. I do agree that broadcasters are becoming more engaged and that’s definitely needed. But I don’t think that any one party or group is going to be able to dictate to the other how things are going to be. It’s not like broadcasters or CE guys can just say this is it, take it or leave it. I mean that’s just not how the ATSC works. It’s a consensus driven organization.
Sinclair is pushing a mobile-centric system that it says is unique or at least different from everybody else. They say everything else is essentially some variation of DVB. Are you on board with the Sinclair approach?
The Sinclair proposal is one of many and it’s one that’s getting full consideration within the ATSC. The key is we all want broadcasting to be highly successful. Sinclair is unique in that not only are they participating as a broadcaster, but they have also started ONE Media and they’re trying to put forth a whole unique system. They’re to be applauded for that effort.
As to whether I am on board with it or not, I think it’s irrelevant. What matters is how does it make it through the ATSC process and whether or not it survives the technical scrutiny that that type of group brings because every one of the proposals that is brought to the ATSC is really going through a very rigorous process at all of those different layers — physical layer, transport layer, application layer, etc.
The original ATSC was the result of compromise. To get a consensus, the system proponents cobbled together a standard with parts from several systems. They said, we’re just going to take one from column A, one from column B, one from C and try to construct something that sort of satisfies everybody. Is that the way it has to go to get a consensus?
No one party is going to bring the best solutions as a single turnkey system — here it is, take it or leave it. What ends up happening through the natural course of things is that folks say, hey, this piece really works well and this piece really works well and so the final system ends up being part of different systems. I don’t know that it has to happen that way, but it makes sense that it would wind up happening that way.
Let’s talk about the current ATSC standard. ATSC created a supplemental mobile DTV standard and I know that when you were down in Raleigh, you were one of the early adopters.
Yes, we deployed an M/H [mobile DTV] system in 2008. That was before the standard. And then we also ultimately deployed the mobile DTV standard on two of our stations.
Why are we still pretending that that mobile DTV could still happen? It seems like a dead standard to me and others in the industry. Stations aren’t adding signals; nobody talking about putting receivers in mobile devices.
That’s one way of looking at it, but the stations aren’t taking away signals either. I mean you still have 150 or so stations that are on the air with it. The technology works. I can tell you that for sure from our experience with it when I was at Capitol. It absolutely works. So the issues that are being faced there are really ones of programming rights and copyright issues, which are always thorny and make it difficult to get stuff cleared so that every station can be on the air. That’s slowing it down, but I don’t think that it’s dead or come to a full stop.
So you think there’s still a chance that digital DTV could get some traction and we’ll all have phones with TV receivers in them?
Phones with TV receivers is certainly a possibility, but I mean that’s another one that requires a lot of business work. If you were to talk about tablets or some other types of viewing devices, I think those might be a little more realistic, a little more near-term as opposed to carriers actually adopting those [for use in phones].
Would you say that the No. 1 goal of the new ATSC standard should be mobility, that we develop a system that can deliver the broadcast signal to smartphones?
You know, the No. 1 thing that I think we need to be focused on is robustness. Robustness provides flexibility. That means that if a broadcaster says mobility is what is most important to me, he has a mode where he can go to mobile. By the same token, if the broadcaster says, you know, what’s most important to me is the viewer in the home, then he has the ability to provide the best possible in-home experience whether that is delivering ultra high-definition or multicast or something else that might be a data service.
As long as we develop a robust system that provides flexibility so that the business people can do what they need to do, then we will have succeeded.
Look back at what’s now called 1.0. In the last transition, we went from analog SD to digital. What victories did we have? We got high definition. We got multicasting. We got 5.1 surround sound. A little later on, we got the mobile piece of it.
Well, that’s the glass half full. I see also what you didn’t get. You didn’t get good indoor reception. I live 20 miles due west from the Empire State Building and can’t receive TV with rabbit ears.
That’s what I mean by a robust signal. So if I am looking for great indoor reception. That would be definitely a big part of new flexible standard. If somebody just wants to provide that indoor reception for the living room experience, yes.
How come the broadcasters through the NAB can’t get together to conduct their own research and development in all sorts of technology efforts?
When you look at, I think that a lot of that work is happening and that the broadcast industry has done it more on an independent basis. If you look at Capitol, for example, when we wanted to develop mobile applications, we went out and we invested and we did that. Sinclair now has the idea that they want to develop the new broadcast standard. They’re investing in that. And so I think that traditionally, that has happened in the broadcast industry, but it has been up to the individual companies as to what they decide they want to invest in.
I would also say that there are some really good examples of where the NAB through its Broadcast Labs program has invested in FM radio chips in cell phones and the next radio platform system. We did some work with Antennas Direct on smart antennas. We invested in Syncbak as a possibility. [Editor’s note: Syncbak is a system for distributing broadcast signals to mobile devices via the Internet and wireless networks.]
We have also been running the AM all-digital research and so I think that NAB Labs can be — and maybe already is — that area of what you’re talking about.
Will NAB be making any additional investments in technology development?
What we’re going to do first is engage our membership and work with them to help identify the areas that are important.
One specific thing that we’re doing is creating what I’m calling a DO committee, DO for Digital Officer committee. This is going to be like a technical advisory board that is going to work and advise the technology team and me on the trends and applications and things that they’re seeing and really help us continue to make the right kind of investments that will be beneficial for the industry.
One of the projects that we’re looking at is programmatic buying and what has to be put into place all throughout the distribution chain for that to take place.
And not just for digital, but for spot TV as well?
What we’re looking at specifically is from a distribution standpoint, what parts and pieces need to be in place for it to happen and how that would play because it’s a whole supply chain issue. It’s like if you fix it in one spot, it just moves the bottleneck somewhere else. So I think we’re probably operating it at a little bit higher level than what you may be envisioning.
Finally, spectrum, all the issues revolving around the FCC’s incentive auction. I take it this is something that you will not be primarily responsible for. That that’s the province of Rick Kaplan.
Absolutely. He is definitely our leader as it relates to spectrum. I did a lot of the analysis before coming to the NAB and one thing I learned is that there’s a lot of spectrum out there that’s been bought and sold and isn’t being used. There’s also a lot of development into using spectrum more efficiently. So I just think that there’s a myth of a crisis as it relates to spectrum.