ATSC 3.0 has tremendous potential. It will allow stations to keep pace with other TV media by enabling them to broadcast 4K and to reach TV sets without outdoor antennas and, perhaps more important, smartphones and tablets wherever they go. Yet, when when the standard took a big leap forward this week, there was no mention of it in the popular press. The gatekeepers are asleep at the switch.
It says something about how broadcasting is perceived that nobody cares that the industry just settled on a new transmission standard that could revitalize, if not revolutionize, the free, universal, over-the-air medium.
When I say “nobody,” I don’t really mean “nobody.” I mean the general public — everybody outside the broadcasting business.
On Tuesday, the ATSC said that it had adopted a “candidate” standard for the next-generation broadcasting system. That’s a huge step. Assuming that testing goes as well as expected, the candidate standard with perhaps a few tweaks will become the final industry standard sometime next year.
As LG Electronics’ Wayne Luplow and Jong Kim noted in our interview with them this week, the candidate standard is solid enough that receiver and transmitter manufacturers can immediately start building on it.
If you have been reading TVNewsCheck, you know that ATSC 3.0 has tremendous potential. It will allow stations to keep pace with other TV media by enabling them to broadcast 4K and to reach TV sets without outdoor antennas and, perhaps more important, smartphones and tablets wherever they go.
Yet, despite this promise, the ATSC announcement of the milestone got no pickup in the popular press, according to my spin around Google.
No story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal or even USA Today. No CBS News or CNN or even MSNBC. No Wired or CNET or even Buzzfeed. As I said, nobody cares.
This indifference is nothing new. The candidate standard was more than five years in the making. We reported that ATSC was exploring a new broadcast standard in May 2010, less than a year after the industry had made the final switch from analog to digital, and the ATSC has delivered progress reports all along the way, none of which spawned a big story.
To me, the indifference suggests that popular media, reflecting popular thinking, have written off broadcasting as an archaic medium on its way to oblivion. This notion is reinforced by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who sees it mostly as a place to raid for spectrum for wireless carriers.
The truth is, broadcast TV isn’t sexy anymore. Its coming out was in the 1950s, and its heyday was probably in the 1970s when it was virtually unchallenged. There are more and, right now, better ways of delivering TV to most people — cable, satellite and OTT or broadband. (Notice I didn’t say to “all people”; only broadcasting can do that.)
But broadcasting is far from done. In fact, that’s the story of ATSC 3.0, that’s the story that the editors, producers and reporters are missing. With ATSC 3.0, broadcasting may enjoy a renaissance — new services, truly ubiquitous reception and, because it’s IP based, integration with the world of the Internet. Who doesn’t enjoy a good come-back tale?
And the story has some other great angles. One of the leading proponents is Sinclair CEO David Smith, who has been variously portrayed as a right-wing zealot, insatiable station consolidator and maverick with a penchant for knocking heads with other broadcasters.
In this saga, Smith is a visionary who recognized early on the potential of ATSC 3.0 and who poured millions into developing technology that has been incorporated into the candidate standard.
Another angle is the broadcast networks. They don’t especially like ATSC 3.0 for reasons not fully understood, at least not around here. From what I can gather, they see themselves primarily as programmers and they don’t see the upside of enhancing a system that would encourage people to watch their programming for free. It’s better to get checks from cable and satellite operators and the purveyors of OTT skinny bundles.
The networks’ position sets them against the affiliates, who have been gung on 3.0. The Pearl group of leading affiliates has been active at ATSC in moving the standards process along and in a way that prioritizes broadcasters over receiver manufacturers. While the networks stew, Pearl has also studied single frequency networks needed to take full advantage of the standard and joined Sinclair and Samsung in developing business models around the new standard. So, there is the conflict that every good drama needs.
By the way, the networks’ negativity is undoubtedly another reason the media has been dismissing 3.0. If ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox are not talking it up, it must not be worth taking seriously.
I suspect that some alert reporter will soon latch onto the story if only because it will soon come before the FCC. For ATSC 3.0 to become the one-and-only broadcasting standard, it needs the imprimatur of the agency. That will come only after a long rulemaking.
Working with the industry, the FCC also has to sign off on a transition plan — a way to introduce ATSC 3.0 without disrupting service to that 10% or 15% of TV homes that still rely on over-the-air reception. The ATSC 3.0 signals are not compatible with the current digital sets.
We all remember how difficult the transition from analog to digital was and how deeply involved the federal government was in it. No congressperson wanted to face constituents who suddenly couldn’t tune into their favorite shows.
The best way to grab the attention of the media, of course, is to show them. With that in mind, Sinclair, Pearl and Samsung, another enthusiastic ATSC 3.0 proponent, are planning to stage live tests and demos in Washington before the end of the year.
Mark Aitken, the ATSC 3.0 point man at Sinclair, says once the test station is up and running, his boss David Smith will be able to do what he has always wanted: “Walk the halls of Congress with a big tablet and tell everybody, ‘Here is the next TV.'”
Now that would make a great picture for a story, wouldn’t it?