TV broadcasters are at war right now, not only with their long-time nemeses, cable and satellite, but also with wireless broadband, which is coming after broadcasters' spectrum and its viewers. To win this war, broadcasters have to innovate. They have to keep up with the competition. In fact, they should strive to get ahead of the competition. Creating a broadcast lab with an annual budget of at least $15 million to develop and test new broadcast technology would do just that.
Advancing Tech = Advancing The Business
Eight years ago, broadcasters almost got it together to establish their own broadcast lab to develop and test new broadcast technology. At the prompting the now-defunct Association of Maximum Service Television and far-sighted executives like Gary Chapman, then the CEO of LIN Television, the NAB voted to put up $2 million for a lab.
But NAB conditioned the grant on consumer electronics manufacturers doing the same, figuring that the manufacturers had as great a stake in seeing broadcasting innovate and prosper as they did. They figured wrong. When the manufacturers said they weren’t interested, the whole initiative quickly died.
It’s too bad NAB cheaped out. The industry needed a lab then and it needs one now.
TV broadcasters are at war right now, not only with their long-time nemeses, cable and satellite, but also with wireless broadband, which may be an even greater threat. Wireless broadband is coming after broadcasters’ spectrum and its viewers.
To win this war, broadcasters have to innovate. They have to keep up with the competition, making sure their services look and sound every bit as good and are every bit as convenient. In fact, they should strive to get ahead of the competition.
The broadcast lab would be an incubator of new ideas as well as place to sort through ideas from elsewhere and nurture them into practical technology, products and services — ripe for standardization.
Without a lab, broadcasters’ future will dependant on whatever the broadcast tech vendors come up with in their own R&D centers. Sometimes that works. The mobile DTV standard that the industry is now betting heavily on is an amalgamation of work from Harris, LG, Rohde & Schwarz, Samsung and others.
But relying on serendipity is not a plan for an $18 billion industry. And who knows how much better the mobile DTV system could have been if a broadcast lab had been deeply involved in the effort from the start?
If nothing else, a lab can help insure against costly missteps. If broadcasters had a lab 20 years ago, perhaps it would have come up with a digital transmission scheme better than 8-VSB, a second-rate solution that continues to hobble the industry.
The Advanced Television Systems Committee, broadcasting’s standards-setting organization, has set its sights on a next-generation digital broadcast system that will have capacity and capability that far exceeds the current system.
“While the specifics of ATSC 3.0 are still to be developed, it’s obvious to me that our future standards should be even more flexible, scalable and adaptable for future innovation,” says ATSC President Mark Richer, in a column he wrote for TVNewsCheck this week.
Coming up with those “specifics” would be the job of the broadcast lab. It is not the job of the ATSC, by the way. As a standards-setting organization, it must keep some distance from the technology developers. It’s supposed to be the arbiter of what technology becomes the standard. It’s shouldn’t have a favorite.
ATSC’s Richer has been a vocal advocate for a lab. “[I]t is essential that we establish an R&D Center for terrestrial broadcasting,” he said in picking up his NAB Engineering Achievement Award for Television last year. “A combination of bricks and mortar and virtual facilities, a broadcast lab can be started with modest investment by this industry. This is not a new idea, but now is the time to make it a reality.”
Someone was apparently listening. At the ATSC annual meeting in May, NAB President Gordon Smith parted from his prepared text to say that the association was once again kicking around the idea of a lab.
Reached this morning, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton had nothing to add to Smith’s comment other than to say that any NAB-sponsored lab would tackle radio as well as TV and would require the support of the association’s entire board.
It won’t be cheap. Richer estimates that even the “modest investment” he talks about would be $5 million a year, enough for the bricks and mortar, a staff of eight or nine and other resources.
According to my trusty EZVue calculator, $5 million amounts to .03% of the local TV broadcasting’s 2010 revenue of $18 million. That percentage shrinks into the thousandths, I think, if I toss radio’s annual revenue into the equation.
I’d say that $5 million is the very, very least the industry could do to keep itself on the technological cutting edge, and the very, very least won’t cut it. Let’s get serious and talk about annual budgets of $15 million or $20 million.
Think of it as a investment that will pay off in the long term with innovative services, and in the short run with the PR that comes from letting the world know that broadcasters intend to stay in the fight and that it isn’t only Silicon Valley that is inventing the future of media.
When I chatted with Richer about all this yesterday, he said something that might serve as the motto for the lab: “Advancing the technology means advancing the business.”