The news that some broadcasters are unsure whether rolling out a new broadcast standard is worthwhile is disturbing. ATSC 3.0 is vital if broadcasters are to remain a vital and important player in the modern mediascape crowded with digital wannabes. It will take a unified broadcasting industry to convince Washington to help aid in the necessary transition.
Imagine what broadcasting would be like today if the industry had not pulled together to develop the digital broadcast standard and convinced the federal government to help implement it.
It would be an artifact of a bygone media age, or well on its way to being one. Those old analog NTSC pictures sure would look terrible on a 60-inch LED display.
But broadcasting did pull together, crafted and executed a slow and smooth transition to digital and HD and as a result remains a vital and important player in the modern mediascape crowded with digital wannabes.
The first broadcast standard lasted 60 years. Today’s ATSC digital standard emerged in the 1990s, but is now at least 100 in digital years. It’s time for a new more capable and robust standard.
The good news is that broadcasters, consumer electronics manufacturers and technology companies are working hard to develop just such a standard under the aegis of the Advanced Television Systems Committee.
If all goes well, ATSC 3.0 will emerge from the meeting rooms and testing labs by the end of next year and will be powerful enough to carry the industry forward for many years — a next-gen system for the next generation.
It will deliver super high-res 4K, possibly even 8K, pictures and it will deliver them to sets with simple indoor antennas even deep within man caves and to smartphones, tablets and wearables and all other manner of mobile devices. The young will no longer be beyond the reach of broadcasting signals.
And with far more capacity and capabilities, the standard will open up new business opportunities. Broadcasting will be the equal of any other TV medium and superior to some.
But writing the standard is just the first step. Once in hand, the industry has to figure out how to implement it. Its big downside is that it will not be compatible with any existing sets. Some accommodation will need to be made for the millions who are watching over-the-air broadcasting.
Just as the industry did 20 years ago, it is going to have to come up with a transition plan. And just as it did back then, it is going to need the help of the federal government to pull it off.
Moving Washington is not easy, especially these days, when ideology seems to trump the reasonable and pragmatic at every turn.
It will take a unified broadcasting industry to make the case.
So, it was discouraging to learn through the reporting of our Doug Halonen this week that two of the nation’s largest and most respected broadcasters — ABC and CBS — are uncertain about whether ATSC 3.0 is a good idea and about whether they should push for it.
Halonen also found some official ambivalence among the other two top networks, NBC and Fox, and from smaller broadcasters who want to know exactly what the ROI is on ATSC 3.0 before agreeing to bear the cost of it.
Without a consensus among its membership, NAB is hobbled and muted. It cannot lead the charge to prepare the way at the FCC and Congress for ATSC 3.0 as it should.
CBS’s lack of support is ironic. It was one of the leaders in moving the industry to the current digital standard, recognizing that it was the path of HD. Its incessant push for HD begun in 1980 ultimately provided the raison d’être for the standard.
I can only speculate why CBS is wary of ATSC 3.0. As it made clear with the introduction of CBS All Access last month and its aggressive stance of retransmission consent fees, CBS is in the pay TV business now. It expects two revenue streams from all its broadcast programming.
If you make free broadcasting too good, too easy to receive on all devices, fixed and mobile, the CBS thinking may go, it is going to accelerate cord-cutting by cable and satellite subscribers, which erodes retransmission consent revenue, and it is going to undermine the retailing of programming — just $5.99 a month! — directly to consumers over the Internet and wireless networks.
As a child of another major content company (Disney), one that led the way to selling broadcast programming via digital media in 2005, ABC may be thinking along the same lines. Then again, it may simply have lost its enthusiasm for broadcasting. When WJLA Washington, a major ABC affiliate, comes on to the market as it did last year and ABC just yawns, you have to wonder.
What Halonen’s reporting did not convey was the deep well of enthusiasm for ATSC 3.0 within the industry. NBC and Fox may not be 100% sure they want to implement the standard, but they are actively engaged it making sure it gets created.
The Pearl consortium of eight leading non-network station groups is fully committed. The Pearl lineup is impressive: Gannett, Hearst, Cox, Scripps, Graham, Meredith, Raycom and Media General.
Pearl Executive Director Anne Schelle told me that she is spending so much time on the standard that she is thinking of having “ATSC 3.0” tattooed on her shoulder.
And then there is Sinclair, the nation’s largest owner of TV stations. It’s all in. It’s an ATSC 3.0 system proponent and, if it had it druthers, it would have adopted and implemented a new broadcast standard 10 years ago.
Broadcasters have to get it together. As Ted Turner would say: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” CBS, ABC and other broadcasters can harbor their doubts, but they shouldn’t hold back the NAB from doing its job — bringing all of Washington around to the need for ATSC 3.0.
Winston Caldwell, a Fox engineer working on the ATSC 3.0 standard, said it well at the NAB’s CCW-SATCON conference in New York this week: “The degree to which regulators will be interested in participating or making accommodations for the effort … is actually going to depend on how aligned the broadcasters are.”
And broadcasters cannot drag their feet. The FCC is now planning its incentive auction for early 2016 in which it hopes to buy out many broadcasters so that it can resell their spectrum to wireless carriers. If successful, the FCC will order a repacking of the TV band. Some stations will have to move to new channels. Some will have to erect new antennas and buy new exciters or transmitters. Fortunately, Congress has earmarked some of the auction proceeds to cover the broadcasters’ costs.
That is the time to switch to ATSC 3.0. The repacking and the introduction of ATSC 3.0 will disrupt the broadcasting service. Nobody want to do that twice. The moves must be in sync.
I’ll give Dave Siegler the last word. He was on that ATSC panel with Caldwell at the CCW-SATCON conference. He is the chief tech at Cox Media, one of the Pearl partners, and a true believer.
“Let’s do this right,” he said. “Let’s do this once. Let’s get the platform to where we can do some new things.”