Technical progress on creating the next-gen broadcast TV standard, ATSC 3.0, is moving forward. Unfortunately, that progress doesn’t seem to be matched by movement on the policy and regulatory fronts. Lawmakers and regulators have to be convinced that ATSC 3.0 is in the best interest of the American public so that they will aid broadcasters in implementing it. That’s a tall order, which is why the NAB and other proponents have to get started immediately.
Judging from the talk at its annual conference in Washington this week, the Advanced Television Systems Committee is making great progress on a standard for the next-generation of TV broadcasting. It’s not an easy task as it involves balancing the business and technical interests of several strong-willed system proponents vying for inclusion in the ultimate standard.
Nonetheless, ATSC President Mark Richer now predicts that a proposed or “candidate” ATSC 3.0 standard — ”actually a suite of standards that fit together,” he says — will be adopted by the end of this year, tested next year and finalized in early 2017.
Unfortunately, the progress within ATSC doesn’t seem to be matched on the policy and regulatory fronts.
If ATSC 3.0 is to be the next generation of broadcasting, much work need to be done on Capitol Hill and at the FCC — and little has been.
Lawmakers and regulators have to be convinced that ATSC 3.0 is in the best interest of the American public so that they will aid broadcasters in implementing it.
In the last go-round, the transition from analog to digital broadcasting, the federal government was broadcasting’s partner from the start.
Actually, it wasn’t digital that captured the attention of policymakers, but high-definition television. At the time, the late 1980s, the nation wasn’t worried about the Chinese or international terrorists.
We were worried about the Japanese, who were killing our electronics industry and threatening our automakers. We thought they had develop a magic public-private formula for economically conquering the world.
Congress saw HDTV as a way of recapturing our lead in electronics. It was egged on not only by U.S. electronics manufacturers, but also by broadcasters who saw HD as a way to hang on broadcast spectrum. Some also felt it was critical for broadcasting to maintain its superiority in the quality of its pictures.
“In light of the variety of potential applications for HDTV, the government has the responsibility to develop a climate in which this technology can fulfill its promise,” said then-House Telecommunications Subcommittee Chairman Ed Markey at one of the many hearings aimed at promoting HD.
With congressional intent clear, the FCC set up in October 1987 an advisory committee headed by former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley. It did far more than advise.
Over the next eight years, the committee brought together the HD system proponents, took the best of each and forged the so-called Grand Alliance system that would eventually become the national standard.
The great technological triumph of the committee was digital compression and digital transmission. They were invented to enable the broadcasting of the fat HD signals.
Wiley’s committee essentially did the work that is now being done by the ATSC. But unlike the ATSC, it was a quasi-governmental body. The FCC would bless whatever it produced and the entire U.S. government would work to bring it to market. That was never in doubt.
This time around is different. The ATSC is doing its work in a policy vacuum without the involvement or apparent interest of the federal government.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler gave ATSC 3.0 a nod during his speech at the 2014 NAB Show, but he didn’t even mention it in this year’s speech. As far as we can tell here at TVNewsCheck, nobody on the Hill or at the FCC is thinking about ATSC 3.0, let alone working on it.
And, make no mistake, broadcasters will need help in bringing ATSC 3.0 to the public.
Just as digital TV was incompatible with analog sets, ATSC 3.0 will be incompatible with digital sets. That means that all those millions of American who faithfully watch broadcasting off air as God intended will be left with blank screens unless some accommodation is made.
When the country went from analog to digital in league with the government, the FCC assigned each station a second channel so it could simulcast analog and digital and gradually wean the public off the former. What’s more, Congress subsidized and administered a massive program to provide D-to-A converters to over-the-air viewers so they could receive digital signals on their old analog sets.
The FCC also helped out by stretching the intent of the All-Channel Receiver Act to mandate that new TV sets be equipped with digital tuners. Can the industry count on the FCC to do that again so all sets can pick up the ATSC 3.0 signals?
Broadcasters also need the FCC to sync up the conversion to ATSC 3.0 with the repacking of the TV band that will follow next year’s incentive auction. Both involve modifications to stations’ transmission facilities.
In the repacking, broadcasters are to receive reimbursement from the government for the costs of moving to new channels — up to $1.75 billion. Those funds would naturally cover some of the costs of the conversion to ATSC 3.0 if it can be done at the same time.
Before asking for any kind of help, broadcasters must persuade policymakers that the ATSC 3.0 is a good idea, good enough to disrupt the broadcasting ecosystem of OTA viewers and cable operators once again.
“The government has an infatuation with over-the-top,” warned NCTA President Michael Powell at the ATSC conference. “I don’t know if it will be easier to galvanize change around the traditional TV experience. The political dynamics are more challenging today.”
Many broadcasters are eager to move to ATSC 3.0 so that they can broadcast directly to mobile devices and provide ancillary data services. I’m not sure those will be seen as compelling reasons in Washington.
In making their case, broadcasters may get some help from an unlikely source — the consumer electronics industry. ATSC 3.0 will also permit 4K, the next step in picture quality and the manufacturers are eager to sell 4K sets. But if analog to HD was a leap, HD to 4K is a baby step. Again, it’s not something that absolutely demands government attention or support.
Winning over Washington to ATSC 3.0 will be a tall order, which is why the NAB and other proponents have to get started now.
NAB President Gordon Smith talks up ATSC 3.0 in front of the choirs — the ATSC members this week and the NAB members last month in Las Vegas. But I have not seen much else out of him or the NAB.
In January 1987, the NAB hosted a demonstration of NHK’s HD technology at the FCC. That ignited a firestorm of interest for HD in Washington that led to the creation of the Wiley’s advisory committee just nine months later.
Part of the NAB’s problem is that it doesn’t yet have the buy-in of the broadcast networks that may see their future in broadband rather than broadcasting. In my pre-NAB interview with Smith, he told me that he will bring the networks around on ATSC 3.0.
But what if he fails? That will leave it to the true ATSC 3.0 believers — Sinclair and the Pearl group — to make it happen in Washington. They’re passionate, but, frankly, I don’t think they have the clout.
The week the FCC formed its Wiley advisory committee nearly 30 years ago, Broadcasting magazine wrote an editorial extolling the move and noting the groundswell of interest in HD.
“It wasn’t long ago that a mention of high-definition television would draw yawns and an immediate change of subject to something livelier, the latest revelation, say, among presidential candidates. Not now. HDTV is the buzzword these days, and should be. Television has no more serious project at hand.”
I wish I could say the same about ATSC 3.0 today.