ATSC 3.0 gets a scratchy reception in its CES premiere

New TVs supporting the ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV standard are showing up at CES this year. (Rob Pegoraro)

LAS VEGAS—The next generation of broadcast television hasn’t gotten a prime-time airing in its CES debut.

Instead, ATSC 3.0rebranded for marketing as “NextGen TV” in September—and its support for over-the-air 4K broadcasts, HDR color, more reliable HD reception, and data delivery to sets--have all been relegated to the equivalent of a late-night time slot.

Only a subset of the top TV vendors have announced that they will ship sets including NextGen TV tuners, they’ve confined that support to higher-end models, and they aren’t showing this off in their CES exhibits.

“This is definitely an early adopter product in 2020,” said John Taylor, senior vice president for public affairs and communications at LG Electronics USA, after the Korean firm’s press conference Monday morning in which NextGen TV got a rare public push.

LG will offer six models with next-generation tuners on-board, some 8K and some 4K.

Samsung will feature NextGen TV tuners in all of its 2020 8K sets, but left that detail out of its Sunday-evening First Look presentation.

Sony, meanwhile, will ship NextGen TV on a single series, the X900H line of 4K televisions, later this year. Those models were not on display on its CES exhibit.

Vizio and TCL, however, left NextGen TV out of their CES introductions. TiVo did too; consumer vice president Ted Malone said, “I don't see a lot of there there yet” Monday after saying the company had considered developing an external tuner add-on for its Edge line of DVRs.

The Advanced Television Systems Committee, the Washington-based group behind NextGen TV as well as the ATSC 1.0 digital-TV standard that debuted in sets at CES 22 years ago, is counseling patience, and calling the total of 20 announced NextGen TV devices a good start.

“Twenty in 2020 is a big number,” spokesman Dave Arland said Tuesday. “Honestly, we didn't think it would be that high.”

The primary objection seems to be the price of NextGen TV components. On Sunday, Vizio product-development vice president John Hwang called the tuners “extremely expensive,” and Samsung TV marketing vice president Andrew Sivori said, “There is a very real cost to it." They and other industry executives didn’t share dollar numbers.

Arland pointed to the difficulties of integrating a new set of electronics, and then the lack of a large base of customers to absorb those costs at first: “The more that you make, the less expensive it will be.”

Paul Gray, a director of research at IHS Markit, said “proprietary IP” could also be a factor, noting the lack of a simple patent pool like the one European firms assembled for the DVB broadcast standard used there.

“I think that's a real pity, actually,” he said Monday. “ATSC 3 is a sensible, pragmatic series of choices they've made, where they've learned off everybody else in the world.”

Unlike ATSC 1.0, ATSC 3.0 won’t have a government mandate to push adoption. The Federal Communications Commission is instead requiring broadcasters that begin ATSC 3.0 broadcasts to keep their ATSC 1.0 signals up for five years after.

Last year, Sinclair said it would bring NextGen TV broadcasts to 40 cities across the U.S. by 2020. Arland said that will require extensive cooperation among broadcasters to share channels on each other’s frequencies and transmitters.

After describing the complicated business of channel sharing, Arland warned that it will be a foreign concept to many local broadcasters: “A lot of TV station general managers don't really understand that.”

Viewers, in turn, will have to rescan to pick up these relocated channels, and some secondary DTV channels may have to be cut to free up frequencies for NextGen.

But stations that adopt NextGen TV will have a chance to build new businesses on the data capabilities of NextGen TV. “3.0 gives broadcasters a chance to do more than broadcasting,” said Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications.

“Think of it as OTT over the air,” said Michael Bouchard, vice president of technology strategy at Sinclair’s ONE Media division, in a conversation Tuesday next to a demo television showing a live NextGen TV broadcast from Las Vegas NBC affiliate KSNV. “We get targeted ads on a non-connected TV.”

NextGen’s advocates suggest that CES 2021 will show this effort in a better place.

“We fully expect that NextGen TV will be a common feature in everybody's television by the time we get to covering 70% of the population,” Arland predicted. LG’s Taylor, meanwhile, noted that three years after ATSC 3.0’s debut in South Korea, all of LG’s sets feature tuners for that standard.

IHS Markit’s Gray, meanwhile, gave manufacturers credit for not rushing early implementations of NextGen TV into the market. “They've spent a lot of time on robustness and testing this stuff out and making sure it works--having the courage to say ‘not yet’.”