ATSC 3.0 backers tout a brighter picture for NEXTGEN TV at CES 2021

ATSC NAB
NEXTGEN TV could be poised for a breakout year but consumer device support is still catching up. (Fierce Video)(Ben Munson)

The pitch for ATSC 3.0, the IP-based broadcast television standard marketed as NEXTGEN TV, often focuses on the 4K resolution it can deliver over the air. But at the online-only CES 2021, industry executives suggested it might appeal more to viewers’ ears than their eyes.

“We've had a lot of conversations around audio and NEXTGEN,” said Grace Dolan, vice president for integrated marketing, at a “Next Generation Television in Focus” panel Tuesday morning.

In addition to enabling broadcasters to air 4K content, offer HD fare with High Dynamic Range luminance and a wider color gamut, and serve interactive content and targeted ads alongside traditional programming, ATSC 3.0 includes Voice Plus. That lets viewers enhance dialog to make it audible above crowd noise and other background distractions.

"A lot of people watch TV with the captions on, even though they're not hearing impaired,” explained Advanced Television Systems Committee president Madeleine Noland at the panel.

Dave Folsom, chief technology officer with Pearl TV, a group of nine U.S. broadcast firms championing ATSC 3.0 deployment, made a similar point in a phone interview Monday, calling dialog enhancement “one of the greatest” features to test audiences.

Tuesday’s panelists suggested ATSC 3.0’s visual upgrades would also sell the standard.

"I think viewers are going to get addicted to HDR and wide color gamut,” Noland said.

Moderator Michael Davies, senior vice president for field and technical operations at Fox Sports, concurred: “The wide color gamut, the HDR, does pop off and make a difference in people's perception."

Stations and viewers, meanwhile, should each find things to appreciate in the interactivity enabled by ATSC 3.0’s Internet Protocol framework.

"It makes it easy for content delivered over the Internet to be integrated seamlessly and easily with broadcast content,” said Nolan. For example, viewers could opt to add an alternate audio feed—a Boston sports fan such as Nolan could watch an away Red Sox game with audio from local announcers—or stats overlays.

“It’s all based on HTML5,” said Nolan. "TV producers already have web departments that know how to use these."

Advertisers should appreciate these interactive elements too. In an online Pearl TV event Jan. 7, Catherine Badalamente, vice president and chief innovation officer for Graham Media Group, touted ATSC 3.0’s ability to “target the right consumer with the right message” as advertisers can with addressable ads on cable.

In the CES and Pearl panels, executives lauded broadcasters for getting ATSC 3.0 on the air despite the difficulties added by the novel-coronavirus pandemic.

Anne Schelle, Pearl’s managing director, predicted that the share of U.S. households able to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts—which can also reach farther than ATSC 1.0—should climb from about 20% to 50% by this summer.

That’s happening without sacrificing ATSC 1.0 channels, a Federal Communications Commission requirement through 2023; Folsom said it hasn’t cost any secondary digital-TV channels either.

Stations are making that happen by sharing transmission facilities and frequencies to carve out room for ATSC 3.0 channels, which has required viewers with ATSC 1.0 sets to rescan to find existing channels on relocated frequencies.

Folsom’s joking description of the operational challenge Pearl has documented in a 194-page manual for broadcasters: “how do you, for lack of a better way, scratch your head and rub your belly at the same time?"

ATSC 3.0 sets, however, continue to look like a trailing indicator. Of the three vendors highlighted on the new WatchNextGenTV.com consumer site—LG, Samsung and Sony—only Sony made a point of noting support for the new broadcast format in its CES announcements. That repeats a pattern seen at CES last year.

In Tuesday’s panel, Nolan pronounced herself unconcerned.

"To me, there's never been a chicken and egg problem,” she said. “It's always been the broadcasters who have to be out there first."

That panel ended with a mention of one particularly interesting possibility that might get a great many sports fans more interested in tuning into ATSC 3.0.

“I’m the sports guy, I've gotta mention betting,” Davies said. “There's no better killer app."

Dolan cautiously replied: ”I think from a functional standpoint, yes, we can certainly make it work."