A skeptic’s guide to ATSC 3.0 next-gen television

The ATSC 3.0 next-gen video hub at the NAB Show in 2017. (Ben Munson/FierceCable)

ATSC 3.0 next-gen TV will be the next big thing in broadcast television, when it gets here in a few years. In the meantime, a fair amount of skepticism surrounds the enhanced broadcast standard.

Features and services being hyped as part of ATSC 3.0 include improved over-the-air reception, immersive audio, deeper indoor reception, mobile reception, zoned programming/advertising, automotive services and advanced emergency alerting.

But skepticism toward ATSC 3.0 comes from potential privacy concerns around sending return path data back to broadcasters, especially after OTA TV was a one-way street for so long. There are also cost concerns for consumers, some legitimate—like eventually needing to pony up for an ATSC 3.0-compatible TV or other device—and others not so much, like needing a new TV antenna. At some point, consumers will need ATSC 3.0 equipment to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts, but broadcasters will be putting out the current ATSC 1.0 signals for five years after they switch on ATSC 3.0.

There is also some concern about whether wireless carriers will push back against ATSC 3.0 chips in phones (the way they did against FM transmitters). Last year, T-Mobile sent a lengthy white paper to the FCC expounding upon the “detrimental effects” ATSC 3.0 tuners and antennas might inflict on phones and networks, while also declaring that an ATSC 3.0 cellphone mandate is not a good idea. And of course, a full commercial rollout of ATSC 3.0 isn’t expected until about 2020, so some tempering of expectations is natural.

“I think it will be at least five years before it reaches any critical mass,” said Alan Wolk, co-founder and lead analyst at media consulting firm TV[R]EV. He said he is pretty skeptical about ATSC 3.0 but said that the standard is really well designed and thought out. One of Wolk’s chief concerns is that it’s not backward compatible and that the audience that’s very into local TV is not rushing out to buy a new TV because it has ATSC 3.0.

“That audience is not super techy,” Wolk said.

Despite whatever sources of skepticism persist, John Hane, president of Spectrum Co., an ATSC 3.0 consortium formed by Sinclair, Nexstar Media and Univision, said it’s not too soon to get excited about ATSC 3.0. He said Spectrum Co.’s ongoing ATSC 3.0 single-frequency network test site in Dallas, Texas, will be a real-deal ATSC 3.0 market.

“When we fire it up later this month it’s going to be a live market and there will be receivers that we’re going to put into the market,” Hane said. He said Spectrum Co.’s partners are working to have additional receivers available in the U.S. and working with partners to have gateway devices built and ready to deploy.

“I think [ATSC 3.0 will] be here sooner than a lot of people think. It’s happening. The largest broadcasters have committed to make ATSC 3.0 a reality,” Hane said, adding that Spectrum Co. is planning markets for deployment and that there will be more markets lit up this year.

Anne Schelle, managing director for Pearl TV, which is running a similar ATSC 3.0 test market in Phoenix, Arizona, also said that momentum around the new standard is going to pick up.

“It is a race and I think for us at Pearl and for Spectrum Co., Phoenix and Dallas are just the markets today. We’re already planning on launching many more in the next year to two years. You’re going to see a flywheel effect of launching markets to get the whole industry going,” Schelle said during a panel at the 2018 NAB Show in Las Vegas.

Pearl TV is an ATSC 3.0 consortium of broadcasters including Fox, Tegna, Univision, Meredith, Raycom, Hearst, Cox, Scripps, Nexstar and Graham. The group recently switched on the first ATSC 3.0 station in that market so consumers participating in the trial can see the standard in action.

Schelle dispelled some of the consumer skepticism around ATSC 3.0 by saying that it’s still early and that consumers still don’t know a lot about it. She said that consumer research conducted by Pearl TV has been positive, particularly with regards to enhanced audio and video quality, the modernized guide and interactive experiences embedded in live broadcasts.

Schelle also said that privacy should not be a concern with ATSC 3.0 given that consumers are already watching content on services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube TV that have access to viewership and audience data.

“This is no different than that. It’s an application-like environment that creates a really easy-to-use guide. And there’s all the required opt-ins and there’s also a basic level of service, which is like TV today,” Schelle said. “I think it’s a little overblown, whatever the concerns are.”

While many of the largest broadcast groups have been the loudest proponents of ATSC 3.0, Schelle said that a lot of smaller broadcasters and noncommercial stations are also excited about moving over to the new standard. But for any remaining skeptics, Schelle said that the improved service and viewing experiences that aren’t possible with current ATSC 1.0 technology will win them over.

“You have to think of it like an enhancement to our current service. Our current service is a great business today and we will be offering that for a very long time,” Schelle said. “Broadcasters who put their capital to use for ATSC 3.0 will get return on investment on early services and then they can expand into new services over time.”

In Dallas, Hane said consumers participating in the trials can expect to see new features and capabilities of ATSC 3.0 like localization of content come online as Spectrum Co. elaborates the network and acquires more programming.

“We have a long way to go to fully elaborate everything. What we start with will be a marked improvement over ATSC 1.0 but it’s going to keep getting better for a lot of years,” Hane said.