The push to develop a new broadcast TV transmission standard that would also serve mobile devices has not yet received the full support of ABC and CBS. Both say it’s too early to commit without knowing all the financial and technical ramifications. Other broadcasters, including Fox and NBC, also seem to be hedging their bets.
ABC and CBS are not on board with efforts to switch broadcasting to ATSC 3.0, a new broadcast standard intended to extend the reach of TV stations beyond the living room to smartphones and other mobile devices, industry sources say — and that’s raising doubts about the prospects for a successful transition to the new technology.
Representatives of the networks would not discuss the reports, but conceded that they are far from committed to developing and rolling out the next-generation standard.
“There are many questions that still need to be answered and issues that need to be resolved,” said a CBS spokesperson. “Our focus is on continuing to provide reliable, high-quality service for the millions of people who watch CBS every night.”
An ABC spokesperson told TVNewsCheck that ABC is reviewing its degree of support.
Although some ATSC proponents see the two other major broadcast networks, Fox and NBC, as supporters, representatives suggested they too are hedging their bets.
“We’re supportive of the work by ATSC to develop a new TV transmission standard, but it’s premature to comment further as this is still a work in progress,” said an NBCU spokesperson.
Said Scott Grogin of Fox: “We are supportive of the concept. There’s a lot of discussion to be had, and we’re going to let the process run its course before we make a decision.”
ATSC 3.0 is currently under development by the U.S.-based Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is hoping to have a recommended standard in place by late 2015 or early 2016 to clear the way for a massive industry transition to begin in the U.S. as soon as 2017.
ATSC 3.0 proponents argue that U.S. broadcasters need to make the switch to remain competitive, because ATSC 3.0 promises to be far superior than the existing standard — ATSC 1.0 — for getting broadcast signals to the smartphones and other mobile devices that consumers are increasingly using to access their programming and other information.
Word that ABC and CBS, two of the TV industry’s largest players, are not on the industry bandwagon raises a cloud over a prospective change that could cost industry and consumers billions of dollars.
“It’s probably fair to say that there are some broadcasters today, including CBS, who wonder what the business plan is and what they can get from a new standard,” said an industry source, who asked not to be identified.
Still, ATSC 3.0 proponents told TVNewsCheck they are encouraged by the support from broadcasters, much of it evident from their direct involvement in the standards-setting work.
ABC and CBS “are not representative of [most] broadcaster[s],” said Mark Aitken, VP of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, an ATSC 3.0 evangelist and proponent of one of the systems competing to be the standard.
“They [ABC and CBS] are content-producing network providers that want business as usual,” Aitken continued, in an email. “There is not a single large broadcaster [group or otherwise] that do[es]not understand that we must transition to a new, more capable standard.”
Said ATSC President Mark Richer: “There’s a very high level of understanding that broadcasting has to transition to a new state-of-the-art technology to survive and prosper.”
Asked specifically whether the lack of an endorsement from ABC or CBS undermines the prospects for a TV industry transition, Richer said: “ABC and CBS are members of ATSC, but I do not know about their business plans or that of any other broadcasters.”
One key group backing ATSC 3.0 is Pearl, a partnership comprising eight major station groups: Gannett, Hearst, Cox, Scripps, Graham Media, Meredith, Raycom and Media General. The partners own TV stations in 43 of the top 50 U.S. markets, according to Pearl’s website.
Anne Schelle, Pearl’s managing director, said the Pearl support is whole-hearted and that most of her time is devoted to ATSC 3.0 matters. “Pearl … is engaged with several of the elements of the evolving standard.”
Pearl was formed in 2010 primarily to develop and launch mobile DTV, a broadcast service for mobile devices. That effort foundered, in part, because of lack of support from CBS and ABC.
Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, stopped short of giving the ATSC 3.0 effort a full endorsement. But, he noted that more than 20 association members are “active and engaged” in the effort.
“ATSC 3.0 is an evolution of digital television broadcasting and one that we have encouraged our members to explore fully, including engaging in its development to ensure it meets evolving consumer habits and demands,” Wharton said. “We are active in ATSC and the work on the new standard.”
Wharton declined to comment on the degree to which any individual member is supporting the standard.
And there are skeptics among smaller station groups. “We’re not all on board,” said Jim Babb, EVP and COO of TV station group owner Bahakel Communications. “We feel like we’ve just gone through one transition [from analog to DTV].”
The key unanswered questions about ATSC 3.0, said Babb: “How is this going to work, how much is it going to cost, and why do we have to go through all this again?”
Without the full support of powerful broadcasters like CBS and ABC, ATSC proponents may have a tougher time winning congressional and FCC support for what will likely be a difficult transition to the new standard.
ATSC 3.0 won’t be compatible with the existing ATSC 1.0. That means that U.S. consumers won’t be able to use their current ATSC 1.0 TV receivers to receive ATSC 3.0 signals over the air without technical upgrades.
To get around a similar incompatibility before the industry switched from the analog standard to the digital ATSC 1.0 standard in 2009, Congress authorized a second TV channel for all broadcasters so they could simulcast analog and digital TV signals.
During the analog-to-digital transition, the federal government also provided $1.5 billion for a program to subsidize converter boxes that consumers could use to upgrade analog TV sets to receive the ATSC 1.0 digital signals.
Today, there’s not enough unclaimed spectrum capacity to give every broadcaster a second channel to simulcast ATSC 3.0 and ATSC 1.0, industry and FCC sources told TVNewsCheck.
In addition, industry officials appear to agree that the federal government is unlikely to subsidize a converter program.
ATSC has established an ad hoc committee of the ATSC board to develop a transition plan under Sam Matheny, the NAB’s new chief technical officer.
The committee is looking at transition scenarios involving simulcasting, an ATSC blog posting says. “Thanks to the combination of ATSC 3.0’s advanced compression CODECs and the flexibility of its physical layer transmission to operate at different combinations of bit rate and transmission robustness, a variety of simulcast possibilities exist.”