3.0 Watermark Test Is Foundation For Future

Television broadcasters around the country today are testing the ATSC 3.0 audio watermark as part of their ATSC 1.0 (A/53) transmission. Not only are the tests aimed at offering them greater insight into who is watching and how internet-connected TV services are used by viewers, but they also offer the chance for participating broadcasters to come out of the chutes running once the next-gen TV standard is finalized and approved by the FCC. Above, NAB’s So Vang at an ATSC 3.0 interactivity demo at the 2016 NAB Show.

Testing is currently underway by some TV stations around country of the ATSC 3.0 audio watermark, one of the multiple individual standards making up the suite of standards making possible next-gen TV, despite the fact television broadcasters for the foreseeable future are locked into transmitting ATSC A/53 (ATSC 1.0) to viewers, according to sources familiar with the private trials.

“The audio watermark is an enabler for multiple use cases for 3.0,” says Anne Schelle, managing director of Pearl TV, a consortium of eight major television station groups. “Those include the ability to enable audience measurement in the future and to trigger interactive functions of ATSC 3.0.”

While A/344, the 3.0 audio watermarking standard, is intended for use with next-generation TV, the mark can be inserted into today’s 1.0 broadcasts without harming reception, says Joe Winograd, EVP, CTO and founder of Verance Corp., the San Diego-based company responsible for developing the watermarking technology.

“By getting this into the market ahead of the full ATSC 3 transition, broadcasters can begin to set the foundation for their long-term strategic direction,” he says.

The testing, which began in December 2016, relies of TV households with specially equipped ATSC 1 receivers that recognize the audio watermark and then reach out to broadcast internet servers via the sets’ Ethernet connections to launch 3.0 web-based services, says Winograd.

Last week’s release of an FCC Notice of Proposed Rulemaking aimed at authorizing 3.0 and the nearing completion of the next-gen TV standard, which is expected sometime in the first or second quarter of 2017, make the testing all the more timely.


Hundreds of households around the country were equipped with the special digital TV receivers at the launch of testing, and more will be added as the audio watermark trial continues throughout 2017, he says.

None of the sources contacted for this story would reveal the specific stations involved in the testing. The rather nebulous “national broadcasters and additional broadcasters” description given by Winograd regarding participating broadcasters is as about as specific as anyone would get.

However, sources at Sinclair Broadcast Group and Pearl TV, whose members own more than 220 television stations in the United States, confirmed the audio watermark testing is ongoing.

“We have not yet announced further market tests [beyond the initial audio watermark implementation testing conducted by Heart Television and Cox Media Group many months ago], but certainly there are things in the works,” says Pearl TV’s Schelle. “We are hoping to release results of the test before NAB [April 22-27 in Las Vegas] and talk about the results at the show.”

The audio watermark standard is a critical component of next-generation television because it activates so many of the new broadband-related services broadcasters will be able to offer with 3.0 as well as play a key role in audience measurement, Winograd says.

“The way to look at the watermark technology is as another pipe, or way, for broadcasters to get information into the receiver,” says So Vang, NAB VP Advanced Technology, who organized and ran a demonstration of 3.0 interactivity at the 2016 NAB Show.

Audio watermark messages delivered via that pipe can activate 3.0 services described in other parts of the next-gen standard, including service usage reporting (A/333), the companion device standard (A/338) and interactive content (A/334), says Advanced Television Systems Committee President Mark Richer.

One example of the A/344 watermark working with other parts of the standard is assisting viewers with specific language needs, Richer says. “Imagine an audio service that is not available in a broadcast. But once the receiver recognizes the program via the watermark, it can then go out over the broadband connection, retrieve the desired audio service, sync up the audio with the video and verify it’s been done properly — all seamlessly to the consumer.”

That same type of broadband connectivity can also help broadcasters achieve a new level of audience measurement and analytics, says Mark Aitken, SVP of Advanced Technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is taking part in the watermark testing.

“I think it is fair to say that the industry as a whole is beginning to measure elements of our audience that were once relegated to Nielsen numbers,” he says.

“It is really in so many ways a big step forward on the part of the broadcast industry to take on the audience measurement analytics that we will find ourselves enjoying in an ATSC 3.0 deployment,” he says.

That sentiment reflects a key point Aitken’s boss, SBG Chairman, President and CEO David Smith, made in November 2016 on a panel of broadcast CEOs at TVNewsCheck’s TV2020 event held in conjunction with NAB Show New York.

“Broadcasters [currently] have no clue what goes on in the real world. We have no legitimate, honest-to-God audience measurement data whatsoever,” Smith said at the time.

“…(W)hen an IP-based platform [ATSC 3.0] is launched, every device in the marketplace, I know who it is and where it is. I can now sell a specific ad to that …. That is worth more. If you do nothing more than that alone, and you get 2X. What’s that worth in terms of Wall Street’s view of growth?”

While longer range, knowing more about individual station viewers and cashing in on the ability to deliver personalized ads targeting specific viewers may prove more lucrative, there are nearer-term benefits to the ongoing audio watermark testing, says Verance’s Winograd.

“By getting this [the audio watermark] into the market ahead of the full ATSC 3 transition, broadcasters can begin to set the foundation for their long-term strategic direction,” says Winograd.

“That foundation is based upon a direct connection to their viewers via broadband as a part of that broadcast service to deliver personalization, interactivity and advanced advertising features.”

Better understanding a station’s audience will give broadcasters a leg up on where they are today, he says.

“By deploying this technology today, broadcasters can begin collecting that data, building the data models and laying the foundation for targeted advertising, for interest-based personalization and interactivity in the future,” Winograd says.

To stay up to date on all things tech, follow Phil Kurz on TVNewsCheck’s Playout tech blog here. And follow him on Twitter: @TVplayout.

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