Put Next-Gen TV, Repack On Same Track

I don't think you'll find many savvy broadcasters who don't believe that ATSC 3.0 is absolutely critical if the medium is to remain competitive in the digital world. But what needs to be done is to get the ATSC 3.0 initiative on the same page as the FCC's incentive auction so that the related TV band repacking takes into account the attributes of the new standard and so the public and broadcasters don't have to suffer the trauma of TV band disruption twice.

Advanced Television Systems Committee President Mark Richer was upset with me about my Nov. 2 column in which I said that the industry screwed up by adopting in the mid-1990s a digital broadcast standard that provides poor over-the-air coverage. Implicit in my criticism of what’s come to be known as the ATSC standard is that there were other systems available at the time of its adoption that could have done a much better job.

Richer’s point is that there were no better systems then, that what was chosen was the only practical option. Richer says he’s got the minutes of the ATSC meetings to prove it. All I had was a decade of grumbling by some unhappy broadcasters and disappointed viewers. So, until I get into those minutes myself and do some more reporting, I will concede the point.

But Richer and I agreed on some other things that are more important as they have to do with the future of broadcasting rather than its past:

  • The current ATSC standard is getting to be a little creaky.
  • The industry must move ahead briskly with the development and adoption of a next-generation broadcast standard dubbed ATSC 3.0.
  • The implementation of ATSC 3.0 has to be synchronized with the FCC’s incentive auction.

ATSC formally began work on the next-gen standard — dubbed ATSC 3.0 — a year ago. According to Richer, it will be more efficient and robust than today’s plain old ATSC.

By more efficient, Richer means that it will have the ability to broadcast 4K and other super high-res formats that will make today’s HD TV look like 1992 color TV. (Remember those horrible scanning lines when  you got close?)

And by more robust, he means that it will blanket markets with signals that can be picked up with indoor antennas in more places as well as on tablets and smartphones, which are becoming increasingly important for TV viewing.


Richer also believes that standard should be flexible enough to accommodate data broadcasting and other non-broadcast services and different spectrum usage schemes — say, one based on 3 MHz or 12 MHz channels rather than just the conventional 6 MHz channels.

Such a broadcast system is devoutly to be wished. Sinclair’s Mark Aitken is a strong proponent. At the CCW conference in New York this week, Aitken said he sees the next-gen system as a means for providing “seamless” service. Viewers who begin watching a show on the 50-inch screen in their living rooms will be able to continue watching it on their tablet or smartphone as they walk out of the house and hop into a car.

“Those are all platforms that broadcasters understand that they have to be on to be relevant,” he said.

Really, I don’t think that you’ll find many savvy broadcasters who don’t believe that ATSC 3.0 is absolutely critical if the medium is to remain competitive in the digital world.

But what needs to be done is to get the ATSC 3.0 on the same page as the FCC’s incentive auction.

The FCC is moving ahead as fast as it can with implementing the incentive auction, which involves buying spectrum from broadcasters who want to give it up and reselling it to wireless broadband carriers.

Part and parcel of the reallocation will be a reorganization or repacking of the TV band, which involves moving stations to new channels, adjusting power levels and reshaping antenna patterns.

As we learned from the transition from analog to digital in 2009, any big change in the fundamentals of broadcasting will be traumatic. And both the repacking and the introduction of a new incompatible broadcast standard like ATSC 3.0 would be big changes. They should happen simultaneously. You don’t want to put the public or broadcasters through a transition twice if you can help it.

Richer thinks it would be unwise for the FCC to come with a repack plan until ATSC 3.0 standard is complete because it will be significantly different from the current standard in what it can do and how it uses the spectrum. “If we are going to do any transition at all, it doesn’t make sense to do it with 25- or 30-year-old technology,” Richer says. “I don’t see the logic in it.”

Mainstream broadcasters are wary of the repacking believing that it will result in the degrading of the broadcast signals, despite legal safeguards saying that the FCC can’t let that happen. They would like to see the incentive auction, repacking and all, go away, and they might be inclined to use ATSC 3.0 to delay the repacking, arguing that repacking should await ATSC 3.0 and then stretching out the timetable for the standard.

That would be a mistake.

Broadcasters don’t need the incentive auction, but they need ATSC 3.0 as soon as they can get it. It will keep them on the cutting edge of TV technology, the place you go for the absolutely best pictures. It will also open up new business opportunities just as original ATSC standard has.

From what I can gather, ATSC 3.0 and the incentive auction could each be ready in three to five years. Broadcasters ought to be make sure they are ready together.

Harry A. Jessell is editor of TVNewsCheck. He can be contacted at 973-701-1067 or [email protected]. You can read earlier columns here.

Comments (10)

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Christina Perez says:

November 16, 2012 at 4:30 pm

Harry: You were right and Richer is wrong about the original ATSC standard. There were more robust options; I believe a review of the facts will show that the powers that be purposely chose a less robust standard so as to give pay TV providers a leg up. Even after the DTV standard was adopted, Zenith offered a proposal to make OTA DTV more robust, and I believe the Zenith scheme was backward-compatible. Again, as I recall, the industry turned a blind eye. Any next-gen standard must be backward-compatible so as not to make existing HD sets and settop boxes obsolete. (Remember how RCA and the Eisenhower FCC handled the transition to color TV.) And yes, the standard must be at least as robust as 4G cellphone. I’d like to see some trade journalist do an investigation into why and how the broadcast TV sector shot itself in the foot by letting the FCC impose a standard that put local TV stations at a competitive disadvantage in the video marketplace. It would be cautionary tale, as the industry embarks on a next-gen standard. You might also want to investigate the ties between high FCC officials and broadband interests, and ask whether such relationships factored into the decision to promulgate an inferior OTA DTV standard.

Brian Walshe says:

November 16, 2012 at 4:49 pm

What you propose in terms of bundling the two issues makes some good sense–IF us viewers who just went through the process of adapting (literally and figuratively) to the current digital television scene can continue to use our existing CRT/NTSC and flat panel HD screens into the future, AND we get as good or better over the air pictures than we do now using ATSC.

The whole system needs to accommodate that kind of transition, so that viewers will at least be able to connect their sets to new receivers using HDMI, component analog, S-Video, composite and analog RF.

A set-top box program using some of the auction funds would seem to be reasonable… since this IS about the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” isn’t it? One can and should debate the whole spectrum juggling proposal against each of those considerations. Is it truly in the public interest. Is it convenient? Is is necessary?

And as this re-packing goes on (as one seems to need to assume it will barring a court blocking it) wireless mike users also need to be accommodated. Perhaps with some additional funds to buy new systems for existing users, who just had to buy new systems when their space taken. I have several thousand dollars of not-leagally useable wireless TX and RX systems sitting on a shelf.

Improvements need to be made to the picture quality of the secondary channels, since a lot of what I see as SD digital over the air has awful problems with compression artifacts. The eye sockets move around but the head doesn’t, for example (or the other way around, depending on the amount of compression and method.)

Some of the programs end up technically look like crap… when it’s fairly safe to assume 35mm negative elements or good quality prints are available.

The equipment to mass-migrate motion picture film is already here. Workflows are available.

Given that there’s an awful lot of 1950’s and 60’s filmed material coming out of the vault for use on current .2 and .3 channels, the providers COULD transfer it at 2K+â„¢ resolution and supply a much better looking starting point for data and picture size manipulation. Could be offered as HD or better main channel programming on some independent stations.

That benefits all involved, from content owners to viewers… and helps strengthen the parties in between.

    Christina Perez says:

    November 16, 2012 at 9:29 pm

    There will be no “auction funds,” even if it gets that far, the courts will decide that any monies derived are the property of the people of the U.S. who own the airwaves, not the licensees who are granted the privilege of profiting from those airwaves while serving the public interest.

    mike tomasino says:

    November 17, 2012 at 4:12 pm

    “A lot of what I see as SD digital over the air has awful problems with compression artifacts.” Strange thing is that Comcast’s SD looks a lot worse than any of the OTA SD I’ve seen. As in barely watchable. People actually pay for that!

Ellen Samrock says:

November 16, 2012 at 11:14 pm

That the FCC should wait on the auction process until ATSC 3.0 is fully deployed is right on the money and a point I made in my own comments to the Commission. Unfortunately, I highly doubt Mr. “You Didn’t Build That” and his cronies can be persuaded to wait it out for 3 to 5 years while the transition occurs. Let’s hope the next FCC chairman (“Dear God, please send Genachowski packing in 2013. I swear I’ll be good.”) will be more open to the needs of broadcasters.

Todd Barkes says:

November 19, 2012 at 4:19 pm

I will come to Mark’s defense on the issue of ‘other choices’ which get defined based on timing. Based on ‘timing’, there were no other choices. But, if the time-line got moved, there was much going on with COFDM at the same time. The problem is that to stop the activities of ACATS and corresponding work happening at the ATTC (towards establishing the standard) would have required someone putting their neck on the line. There was ‘last minute’ effort (end of ’93) to more properly place an understanding of the benefits that could be derived by taking a ‘right turn’ to pursue COFDM, but in the end no one would take a position against the time-line dictated from the top (Dick Wiley). One could argue ‘there were no other choices’ at that time. I have the notes (too…I became involved in ’87)), and I am reading the reports submitted by the “COFDM Transmission Expert Group”, and one has to wonder if everything was argued, but that is hind-sight… So, Mark Richer’s comments stand on their own to the degree that the time-line is viewed as the imperative. But, when the adoption of the standard was failing due to concerns over its functioning, there WERE other choices that (arguably) could have been made. But all is water over the dam…we are where we are, and Mark Richer is helping to lead one of several efforts (ATSC 3.0) to pull the television broadcast industry into a current and fully competitive platform. Thank you Mr. Richer.

    Christina Perez says:

    November 19, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    The European standard, which is more robust, was available and the Americans chose to go their own way with a less robust standard… Will Mr. Richer attempt to limit reception of 3.0 to those who hand over their name, rank and serial number, making reception over the public airwaves a privilege and not a right? That seems to be the scheme these days…

    Todd Barkes says:

    November 21, 2012 at 12:03 pm

    It was available at the critical juncture in 1999/2000. We could have saved the general decline of OTA viewers if we had a more robust/capable standard for sure. We need to evolve the business, but the free to air ad supported business has an important place in the future of America.

Todd Barkes says:

November 19, 2012 at 4:22 pm

P.Ps. – It is quite eerie to look back at Xerox copies of what you did going back that far. (I say to myself)…, used to be pretty smart for not knowing very much! 🙂 In 1987 there was NO discussion of going digital!

Hans Schoonover says:

November 21, 2012 at 5:14 pm

The Unmentionable Challenges of ATSC 3.0: 1) If New Media generates less than 10% of your sales you’d better be thinking about how to trim back expenses and increase IP audience size in an ATSC 3.0 future, 2) I was personally shocked when neither NAB nor ASTC 3.0 addressed CentralCasting requirements! There is nothing available “off-the-shelf”. Companies like DirecTV and ESPN have had to “roll their own”, hiring software development teams to create custom solutions, 3) Today, TV Stations seem to be competing against each other with one web site per station. The real opponents are Netflix, Amazon, Hulu Plus, Vudu, Google TV, Apple TV, Aereo, etc. The future of ASTC 3.0 may hinge on how well it facilitates broadcasters’ IP competitive imperative to provide multiple channels of time-shifted compelling programming, aggregated IP applications, interactive experiences and support for a globally distributed pool of subscription based users, 4) Broadcasters must focus in on what grows the business by working tactically (national & local) to prevent OTA ad dollar migration to web competitors, 5) I think the FCC gets-it! They do not want to lose quality local reporting under their watch, it is not a good thing to be attached to in the history books. And 6) Who is going to pay for all this? … Call me 818 516 0544, I can help with a free business plan.

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