FCC, Give Broadcasters A 3.0 Task Force

The commission should heed broadcasters’ request to prioritize the ATSC 3.0 standard and launch a task force to concentrate the agency’s resources in getting it unstuck. Broadcasting’s future wellbeing may depend on it.

Harry A. Jessell

NAB President Curtis LeGeyt and a contingent of broadcasters made the rounds at the FCC a couple of weeks ago, during which they admitted that the industry’s transition to ATSC 3.0 had “stalled” and that the entire push for the new broadcast standard was “in peril,” according to the required public notification of their visit.

The admission should not come as a surprise to anybody who has been closely following the rollout of 3.0. It’s been more than five years since the FCC authorized use of the standard, and I haven’t found anybody outside the range of this column who knows what it is.

(It might come as a surprise to those who have been reading broadcasters’ press releases and comments in the FCC’s latest 3.0 proceeding in which they emptied Roget’s to describe 3.0 progress as “substantial,” “great,” “remarkable,” “incredible” and “tremendous in a very short period of time.”)

To get things moving again, broadcasters beseeched FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel and two other commissioners to signal that 3.0 is a priority and launch a task force that would concentrate agency resources in getting 3.0 unstuck and moving ahead.

The commissioners should grant the requests if:


  1. They think it’s a good idea to preserve free, universal over-the-air TV for another generation or two, and
  2. They don’t want to be remembered as the gang responsible for killing off a prime source of local news and a critical and reliable disseminator of vital information in local emergencies.

ATSC 3.0, or NextGen TV as the marketers call it, it is not a panacea, but its implementation is imperative. It will give the broadcasting a fighting chance in the ruthless TV marketplace now dominated by tech and Hollywood giants.

The standard will allow stations to keep pace with the streamers in sound and picture quality (UHD 4K will soon be “table stakes,” NAB says) and in offering basic interactive features and targeted programmatic advertising.

It will also allow them to repurpose some of their spectrum for ancillary datacasting services that may generate new revenue and serve the public interest in novel ways. Proponents talk about all kinds of useful applications in geolocation, education, public safety, automobiles and elsewhere.

For me, the great promise of 3.0 is improved reception. When the industry switched to digital in 2009, it quickly discovered that the digital signals did not propagate as well as the old analog ones.

The 3.0 standard puts out more rugged signals. Plus, it facilitates the use of repeater stations – single frequency networks. The better signals and the repeaters will greatly improve broadcasting’s reach and permit the use of small, cheap antennas in far more places.

The NAB will be celebrating its 100th anniversary at its spring convention in April. That sounds like a good time for Rosenworcel to take the main stage declare she is all-in on 3.0 and the establishment of the requested task force to expedite rules changes, streamline licensing, knock aside any bureaucratic obstacles and mediate inter-industry disputes — in other words, to do whatever it takes to make 3.0 happen.

Rosenworcel is an unlikely champion for 3.0. She’s been a critic for years, even voting against authorizing its voluntary use in 2017. Her main gripe is that because 3.0 is not backward compatible with 1.0, consumers will be forced to buy 3.0 sets. “This is not a great boon for consumers; it’s a tax on every household with a television,” she explained in a speech.

I get it. It’s her duty to look after the interests of TV consumers, but I believe that she can do that best not by being a drag on 3.0, but by being a catalyst.

Setting aside her concern about a 3.0 “tax” for the moment, I would argue that her chief consumer concern should be making sure that broadcasting has the technology it needs to keep up with the competition and to keep pumping out free entertainment and, more important, trusted local news and information for all.

The technology it needs, the technology broadcasters are asking for, is 3.0 — state of the art pictures and sound, interactivity and blanket coverage with tiny antennas.

Policymakers have been trying to figure out what they can do to revive local journalism following the devastation of newspapers by digital media over the last decade and a half.

That George Santos was able to lie his way into the U.S. Congress last November in the largest media market is the country says all that needs to be said about the state of local journalism.

There have been proposals to give tax credits to local news outlets for the hiring of more reporters and to empower outlets to claw back revenue from Google, Facebook and others that make billions from aggregating their content.

Here now is the opportunity for Rosenworcel and the FCC to do their bit for local journalism.

I hope nobody at the FCC is foolish enough to assume that, given the hard lessons of newspapers, digital media will step forward to provide local TV news should broadcasting wither and fall. It doesn’t always work that way. Sometimes, digital just conquers and salts the earth.

To win Rosenworcel’s favor, broadcasters will have to take care of her tax problem — that is, they will have to make sure OTA viewers are not burdened with the cost of upgrading to 3.0.

One billion dollars or so should do it. For that, broadcasters should be able to buy millions of 3.0-to-1.0 converters or dongles and distribute them to OTA homes so they can watch 3.0 off their 1.0 sets. Money will be needed for a massive PR campaign to explain to people what is happening and how they can participate.

Promising the billion is easier said than done, of course. I have a hard time seeing broadcasters raising that kind of money, given that some broadcasters, like CBS and ABC, aren’t that keen on the whole 3.0 idea. But the industry might ante up if enough broadcasters believe that datacasting will produce new revenue to cover the transition costs.

Where the FCC task force could be a big help is in facilitating simulcasting efforts. As stations turn on 3.0 signals, they have to simulcast a 1.0 signal so as not to disrupt service to folks with 1.0 sets before they are equipped for 3.0.

Back in the oughts, in the transition from analog to 1.0, there was a lot of excess broadcast spectrum lying around. The FCC was able to give each station temporary use of a second channel for more than a decade for simulcasting. Even then, the transition was complicated and messy.

Without dedicated simulcast channels this time around, broadcasters have had to make do. They shuffle around channels, typically aggregating a few 3.0 channels on one station – the 3.0 host – and the 1.0 simulcasts of those 3.0 channels on another – the 1.0 host.

It takes a lot of cooperation and hard work to map out what channels go where and get everybody to agree. And approach has severe limitations.

At last count, broadcasters have managed to put 3.0 hosts stations on the air in 68 markets covering 60% of TV homes. That’s progress, but not as much as it may seem. In one of those 68 markets, Miami, where there are 19 stations broadcasting 61 channels, mostly diginets, the 3.0 host broadcasts just four 3.0 channels. That’s four out of 61.

The channel shuffling is clearly not a practical means for simulcasting on the grand scale necessary for the transition.

In any event, the method requires a lot of FCC paperwork. A task force would ensure that it is handled quickly and efficiently. And if it really wants to help, it will work with broadcasters in coming up with a more productive and comprehensive simulcasting scheme, one backed by the authority of the agency.

Proponents of 3.0 face many such challenges (see NAB comments in latest 3.0 rulemaking) that will not be met unless the FCC is a full and active partner.

The FCC chairperson has always had a standing invitation to appear at the NAB convention.

Rosenworcel should accept the invite this year, go to Vegas and promise that the agency will do absolutely all that it can do to get 3.0 moving again, not for the sake of the broadcasters, but for the sake of local journalism, for the sake of Americans who cannot afford to pay for Xfinity or Netflix and for the sake of the whatever valuable new services datacasting might yield.

Harry A. Jessell is editor at large of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted here. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (6)

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Preston Padden says:

February 6, 2023 at 10:43 am

Absolutely perfect column, Harry. As usual you did a lot of homework before writing and you nailed it!

SunnyAnd75 says:

February 6, 2023 at 4:49 pm

Harry, thank you for bringing awareness to this. I absolutely agree with you that a task force is needed to help broadcasters expedite rules changes, streamline licensing, and to knock aside any bureaucratic obstacles. It’s frustrating that broadcasters have to follow certain stringent rules when many other platforms operate like the wild west. Broadcasters should be positioned to serve the community in modern, efficient ways.

The challenge I see with ATSC 3.0, or “NextGen TV”, is identifying the solutions that we are solving for the consumer. So much of what is being discussed are ideas (many originated by broadcast engineers) of how traditional broadcasters can compete against well-established telecom carriers. Broadcasters have limited experience and minimal infrastructure in these areas. “Better picture and sound” can be accomplished with ATSC 1.0- TODAY. If any broadcaster reading this was to add a new diginet on their existing ATSC 1.0 station in 1080p HEVC (the same resolution and codec used at NextGen lighthouse stations today), nearly every existing smart TV that is 4K capable would decode it. That is a significant amount of existing ATSC 1.0 capable televisions that already exist in the marketplace today, and the number is only growing as older televisions are replaced. If better pictures and sound and better compression is the current driving factor, these things are possible within ATSC 1.0 now, without disenfranchising existing viewers (which, BTW, makes up nearly 100% of our revenue today).

NextGen TV is not going to be the lifeline for local news. The challenge with local news is it has been following a largely unchanged formula for 70+ years. Unfortunately, younger audiences have not bought into this “find out what the weather will be when we come back”. They simply look at their phones. Some broadcasters are recognizing this and trying new things. CBS O&O Detroit is a great example of a broadcaster who is trying something new with local news. As broadcasters, we all need to be doing the same.

If anyone has a real use case of what new technologies ATSC 3.0 has brought to the marketplace over the last 5 years in any of these lighthouse markets or has found a way to generate additional income, I would love to learn more about it. A major broadcast group recently stated that revenues from 3.0 will surpass retrans by 2030. That’s just over 6 years away, yet no one has found a way to make the first dollar.

No one bought Amazon Prime because of their groundbreaking streaming technology. Those who did not have Prime before August of 2023 bought it so that they could watch Football. No one pays for Netflix each month because it has 4K capabilities. Consumers have shifted to these technologies because they’re following the content. If broadcasters made a stronger commitment to programming vs the temptation to fall back to low cost, low risk programming, the consumers would follow. With major broadcast networks pushing their premium content towards their own distribution platforms, it will be up to broadcasters to solve for this gap. Unfortunately, recycling yet another 30 min newscast where syndication once existed is not the answer.

Content is king. If we create content and promote it, viewers will find us. Pro sports on ATSC 1.0 is proof of that. Not one of my friends has refused to watch the Superbowl because it will broadcast in 720p on FOX stations. Instead, they’re asking me how an antenna works. Why are they asking me? Because broadcasters are the worst promoters of their best asset.

ATSC 3.0 is a great technology. If we were starting from scratch, it would make absolute sense. The challenge is finding a solution that we’re solving for the consumer. When Apple came out with the iPhone, they solved a problem the first day it came out. They gave consumers a reason to drop the then market leader, Motorola. Apple didn’t release it under the promise that new features would be forthcoming if only users would first throw away their existing phones. Until we can solve that problem, I’m afraid we’ll be in a stalled state for years to come.

tvn-member-3011604 says:

February 6, 2023 at 9:46 pm

“George Santos was able to lie his way into the U.S. Congress last November in the largest media market is the country says all that needs to be said about the state of local journalism.”
Yeah, but I’m not sure that is a compelling argument for 3.0. After all, Joe Biden lied his way from senate to presidency over the past 50 years using good old fashioned newspapers, analog broadcasting and ATSC 1.0. Would suddenly switching to 3.0 make candidates and politicians like him more transparent, more accountable and news outlets more honest? I doubt it. The problem, to use a favorite liberal word, is more “systemic.” With 3.0, dishonest candidates and politicians will simply look sharper in 4K.

PeterG says:

February 7, 2023 at 10:58 am

I’ve been doing some research for the ATSC’s 40th anniversary celebration this year and I came across the attendance list from the first ATSC meeting, held at NAB on May 13, 1983. Among the 100 attendees at the meeting, I found your name, representing Broadcasting Magazine. This may not be definitive, but of all the attendees listed, you’re the only one, at least to my knowledge, that is still actively engaged in the industry. Broadcasting published a brief report on the meeting in its May 16 1983 issue. Great reporting then, and great insights now in the current Jessell at Large feature on ATSC 3.0!

PeterG says:

February 7, 2023 at 11:00 am

PS Not sure why my username is shown as PeterG but it’s Lynn Claudy at NAB.

StreamWise says:

February 7, 2023 at 7:17 pm

Over the last decade our company has installed or tested nearly every consumer device related to ATSC 1.0 / 3.0 in customer homes (Windows Media Center PCs, TiVo, VBoxes, Tablos, HD Homeruns, Recasts, AirTV, Channel Master Stream+, Evoca, etc). Not to mention a wide variety of antennas from multiple manufacturers.

This experience gives us a unique perspective on consumer adoption of OTA. After working in thousands of living rooms to transition consumers from cable and satellite to OTA + skinny bundles, we believe that NextGenTV has the opportunity to be the best entertainment value available to the vast majority of American consumers; however, the lack of unity at the upper levels of industry seem destined to derail this possibility.

Sadly, we seem to have no voice in the larger conversations because we are focused entirely on the customer.