JESSELL AT LARGE

TV Should Heed Smith’s Next-Gen Urgency

Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO David Smith is demonstrating industry leadership in his drive to get the industry to adapt ATSC 3.0, the next-gen TV standard. His fervent and repeated claims that only the swift adoption of a new standard will save the industry from a slow, but inevitable obsolescence, may not always be welcome, but there’s no denying it’s a message that needs to be heard and acted on.

Leadership is a loose ball.

It usually goes to the one who wants it the most. Right now, in local TV broadcasting, that seems to be David Smith of Sinclair Broadcast, the fast-growing station group out of suburban Baltimore.

When he is not outbidding his peers for more TV stations, he is out pushing the idea that the industry’s fundamental technology — the ATSC digital broadcast standard — is fundamentally flawed and that only the swift adoption of a new standard will save the industry from a slow, but inevitable obsolescence.

The next-generation standard, some variation of the OFDM standards used by much of the rest of the world, would give broadcasters a much fatter pipe for delivering more channels of programming and new services like 4K and 3D.

But more important, as Smith sees it, it would generate a signal rugged enough to be received not only on every set in the house, but on smartphones and tablets, the viewing platform of choice for a growing slice of the population.

What’s more, he says, it will allow broadcasters to compete in the coming world of TV advertising, where spots are targeted to neighborhoods, to homes and even to individuals based on the massive amounts of data that are being collected about them. Big data driving big broadcasting will make for a powerful marketing force.

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Smith lays out the vision in an interview that we posted last week.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee has already begun work on the new standard, which it’s calling ATSC 3.0. What the effort lacks is urgency.

Without a big push from the owners and top managers, the first next-gen sets won’t be arriving in stores until 2020. Smith believes that will be way too late, that other TV media will have blown past broadcasting. He is calling for a Manhattan project, whose mission will be to define a new OFDM standard within the next year so that the new receivers and new services can be introduced by the end of 2016.

Sounds like a plan, but it raises some tough questions.

For instance, is this OFDM technology all it’s cracked up to be? If broadcasters go through the effort and expense, will the signal really cover a market like a blanket as Smith insists it will? Will I be able to watch at home with a simple antenna and on my smartphone with an internal antenna? If not, what’s the point?

On the other hand, will the signal be too good? By that I mean if it is as good as Smith says it is, won’t it accelerate cord-cutting — the cancellation of cable and satellite video services — and cut into broadcasters’ retrans revenue?

If we move too fast on the new standard, won’t we be essentially cobbling together existing off-the-shelf technology — some variation of the DVB-T2 Euro-standard — rather than searching for — or perhaps developing — the best cutting-edge technology? The industry might be locking itself into last-gen technology rather than next-gen technology.

But the big question is, how will the industry — how will the country — transition to the new standard. The standard will be incompatible with the current one, meaning that all those tens of millions of digital sets that have been sold over the past 10 years will not be able to receive the new signals off air.

The transition from analog to digital was long, expensive and traumatic. And it ended just four years ago. Is the country ready for another one just two or three years from now?

Smith believes that the new standard will unlock so much value in broadcasting that the industry will be able to bear the cost of making sure that all of today’s OTA viewers will be able to receive the next-gen signals. His idea is to give each OTA viewer a dongle that plugs into the back of the set and that converts the new signal to the old.

Even assuming that such a dongle would work, that sounds like an extremely expensive proposition. Let’s say there are 30 million homes that demand a dongle, which I will arbitrarily price at $100 including shipping and handling. That’s $3 billion – a lot of money that the industry will have to spend before any new revenue flows from the new standard.

Smith is being more than a little glib when he says the cost of accommodating the OTA viewers is “a rounding error” in the revenue-generating potential of next-gen TV.

Broadcasters can’t look to the federal government to subsidize the transition as it did in 2009. There will be no associated auction of TV spectrum to generate the cash.

Speaking of the federal government, Congress will certainly have something to say about implementing a new broadcast standard, especially if members start hearing from constituents about some new-fangled scheme of the broadcasters that will render their $1,000, 50-inch TVs somewhat obsolete.

Is the NAB ready to manage this on the Hill and at the FCC at the same time it is trying to protect the integrity of TV band from the FCC incentive auction and channel repacking?

These are good questions, but they are also the kind that can paralyze. If broadcasters wait to act until they can find the perfect technology or come up with the perfect transition plan, they risk falling hopelessly behind other TV media.

As I said, in the ATSC, the industry has the vehicle for developing and implementing the new standard.

But the speed at which ATSC works is largely dependent on the urgency that the broadcast networks and the station groups demand and the support they supply in the form of resources and participation.

I know that for many broadcasters Smith is not an easy man to follow. He likes to play the maverick, he periodically causes political problems for the industry and he acts like he is the smartest guy in the room. His enthusiasm for OFDM sometimes comes across as an I-told-you-so jab at those who rejected it when the current digital broadcast standard was being implemented in the 1990s.

But all broadcasters should be grateful for his incessant calls for action on a next-gen standard, for trying to keep it front and center and for insisting that the future of broadcasting is at stake as I believe it is. Nobody else is.

That’s called leadership.

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 (15)

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Ellen Samrock says:

July 3, 2013 at 12:53 pm

It may not be as difficult a transition as portrayed here. Now that OTA households are nearing the 20% mark and growing, I think more people will gladly spring for a USB dongle at $60.00 a pop (street price) rather than go back to cable and satellite (although it might be good to have a tuner dongle that supports both ATSC 1.0/2.0 and 3.0). On the broadcast side, according Mark Aitken, it’s plug-n-play; swapping out the 8VSB exciter for OFDM while keeping the amplifiers (although, as I understand, it may require more amplification to keep the same coverage). As for potentially killing the golden goose of retrans fees, well, let’s face it, cable, the telcos and satellite are in it to win it. And, to them, if that means harming broadcasters, so be it (plus, they have been loudly whining to the government about the fees they pay, so who knows how long retrans consent will last anyway). The broadcast industry is going to have to develop new revenue streams that are separate and apart from the MVPDs. What we need are new tools to do it, like ATSC 3.0.

Alray Johnson Sr. says:

July 3, 2013 at 1:55 pm

A few thoughts.

– On the point of consumer mobile market adopting OTA TV, whether it is ATSC, ATSC 3.0 or OFDM or whichever, it will not help tablet/smartphone makers to embed the TV tuner. The problem lies in the business model, technology change won’t help directly. Take DVB-H in Europe for example. This is an OFDM-based standard, and it was meant to go into mobile devices. But we didn’t see that take-off, did we? So the argument that if we switch to ATSC 3.0 with OFDM technology then that will unleash the market potential, is proven to be wrong already.

– The greatest strength the current ATSC-based standard we have is, there’s a very large coverage foot-print nation-wide already. Not only the U.S. but Mexico and Canada use the same ATSC standard so there’s that continuity, which can only help market economics wise, i.e., price of the consumer products will come down.

– Dongles are dead, that’s not a market. They indeed were a market-entry product in the PC era, but in the era of tablets, smartphones etc., dongles are an awkward form factor. Apple doesn’t support plugging in dongles, so there, you lost more than 50% of marketshare already.

– Lastly, I am guessing that OFDM-based broadcaster equipment, such as exciter, modulator, etc., consumers more power compared to a similar 8VSB-based equipment, because of the peak-to-average-power ratio (PAPR) issue. On an apples-to-apples comparison basis, to overcome the PAPR phenomenon that is natural to OFDM, the transmit power has to be higher. This means the maintenance costs of the OFDM-based headend could be larger $-wise and environment-friendly wise.

SR

Maria Black says:

July 3, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Apple can support a dongle, its just got to work correctly. It would have to generate a wifi signal and then the Apple device could go that route. not exactly elegant but we all know apple is famous for not playing well with others. they are all better off with streaming apps to all devices and saving dongles for TV sets.

Meagan Zickuhr says:

July 3, 2013 at 4:12 pm

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! SpectrumEvolution.org and Greg Herman have been saying this and trying to demonstrate THIS EXACT IDEA since BEFORE 2011. Read this – http://www.spectrumevolution.org/broadcast-engineering-article-watchtv-asks-fcc-for-experimental-license-to-test-spectrum-efficient-wireless-transmission-technology

    Ellen Samrock says:

    July 3, 2013 at 9:25 pm

    It’s probably for the same reason people would rather listen to Warren Buffett for money advice instead of me.

Stephanie Harrison says:

July 3, 2013 at 4:26 pm

The recent consolidation in TV broadcasting is great but, its still “walled”. In order for this industry to expand it needs to recruit and embrace a big partner outside of the broadcast TV industry to bring attention, interest, scale and a broader potential consumer base. A new media leader like Google, Microsoft, Yahoo with the capital behind them to help leverage the broadcast industry’s assets. Technology leaders like Apple or Amazon or Intel or…?? Need to find and welcome a co-leader to this industry to help fund development, accelerate deployment and connect to “new” digital consumers too. Harry, what company/industry could make the most logical partner in helping the broadcast TV industry grow and thrive?
. My $0.02

    Linda Stewart says:

    July 3, 2013 at 6:07 pm

    I wonder if the Googles of the world have seriously looked at the broadcasting platform and what they might do with it. My guess is probably not. After all, it is a one-way pipe, no matter how big you make it. What I want to know is, are Google and Intel going to pay broadcasters retrans fees to put them on their IPTV systems?

Trudy Rubin says:

July 3, 2013 at 7:43 pm

Broadcasters need a more robust signal, you lost that with the digital transition. If the content is right, people will use a dongle to watch it. I can see someone hooking a dongle to watch sporting event on their phone or tablet. But you need to build the system so you have some streams in the open and some. Behind a pay wall. Satellite radio and TV do it with their receivers, so can OTA. Make it so the stream has the station call sign with a number code, one set of code is always in the open, another set of codes behind the wall. If your content is what people want, they will pay. The Industry could pick up a portable market without having to selling a potable Tv. But it will all be about how robust the signal is and the content. Offer the content people want and they will view it. Many people I know are surprise to hear that their still is OTA TV. If you don’t’ grow the OTA market, it will disappear.

John V. Bayer says:

July 3, 2013 at 8:46 pm

It doesn’t appear that the new standard is backward-compatible with the existing digital TV standard. One change that could be made within the existing standard is to allow for multiple lower-power transmitters on the same frequency. This could fill in coverage in the current dead spots and perhaps allow for a lower power (less expensive to operate) main transmitter. It should be possible to co-locate auxiliary transmitters on cell phone towers.

Another disappointment is that the current ATSC standard does not work well, if at all, from a moving vehicle. I don’t know if this is addressed by either the current or proposed standard.

April Davis says:

July 4, 2013 at 8:53 am

My observations -> 1: New mobile device chip sets are designed for wide spectrum swaths, and use software defined radio technology. I.e., the device can receive ATSC, DVB-T2, LTE, GSM. Just load in new firmware and let ‘er rip. 2: I see no reason what we used to call TV stations could not partner to become LTE base stations instead of selling spectrum, if only regulators would let them. Oh.. well.. I guess my thinking is soooo far out of the box (pun intended) few can follow. Sorry,

Peter Grewar says:

July 4, 2013 at 11:19 am

A couple of observations. 1) Obsoleting existing televisions and receiving gear just at a time when OTA television is really starting to pick up viewers again seems like a dangerous proposition. Especially should it prove that OFDM reception isn’t enough more robust that 8VSB to justify the disruption. And that leads into the second observation: 2) Rather than trying a concurrent national transition, why not roll it out into a handful of test markets first? Specifically, I’d transition at least some of the stations in a handful of large markets with challenging terrain and low OTA usage to OFDM and just see how it works. Why? Because if it can work in San Francisco and Boston, then it will surely work almost everywhere. And so few viewers depend on OTA reception in those particular markets that the disruption will be much lower. Lessons learned could be applied in Dallas/Fort Worth, Minneapolis/Saint Paul, and other markets where many viewers do depend on OTA television.

Trudy Rubin says:

July 4, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I am only a viewer of OTA, so this post is kind of a question and observation, from someone who knows very little. I take from the above post that OFDM requires more power output to cover the same amount of ground? The way someone explain it to me, is that the currently ATSC standard compared to analog is 10 to 1 ratio, is that right? For example 3 KW in the current ATSC standard would be equal to 30 KW in the old analog? Part of the problem with high VHF appears to be the low power level the stations are putting out. For example if you live close to the transmitter, you can get a VHF station with rabbitears, but when you get 25 to 30 miles away, you need a bigger antenna because of the frequency wavelength and the lower power level? So a viewer who was about 30 miles away and once used rabbitears, now need some type of VHF yagi. I am under the impression that because of the current ATSC standard amplification level and possible interference that high band VHF power levels stay lower. Would the fact that the OFDM standard requires more power for coverage solve some of the problems with high VHF? As for UHF and the current ATSC standard. My personal opinion, is that the biggest challenge is dealing with multi-path signals. Analog you could see ghost and adjust the antenna even rabbitears. Today with a signal meter you have know idea if your getting a signal from multiple directions, but often the receiver can’t pick which signal to decode. So for OFDM to work as great mobile platform it has to be able to reject, or at least overcome multi-path signals. Would the OFDM standard work better because it requires more power to cover the same? Does it work better because it needs more amplification?

    Alray Johnson Sr. says:

    July 4, 2013 at 6:37 pm

    In reply to MrChips’ remark: “As for UHF and the current ATSC standard. My personal opinion, is that the biggest challenge is dealing with multi-path signals. Analog you could see ghost and adjust the antenna even rabbitears. Today with a signal meter you have know idea if your getting a signal from multiple directions, but often the receiver can’t pick which signal to decode.” Over at the PLAYOUT blog (link on the sidebar to the right) I saw a few posts down below a post about wiflow tv, which appears to have nailed exactly the issue you referred, the issue of multipath ATSC signals. Not sure the details though. SR

    Trudy Rubin says:

    July 5, 2013 at 7:09 am

    Thanks SR. That was the first time I look at the Playout Blog, it was interesting.

antonio berretta says:

July 5, 2013 at 11:01 am

When did this guy become the expert on anything???


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