Broadcast TV's Future Is In Wheeler's Hands

Saturday, Apr 16, 2016

In August 1999, when I was editor of Broadcasting & Cable, we ran a cover story — "Back to the Future" — about how the new DTV broadcast standard was off to a rough start. Early adopters complained that it was more difficult to receive than the old analog NTSC signal. In many places, you needed a good-sized outdoor antenna.

DTV, it seemed, would take America back to the 1950s, just as the flux capacitor had taken Marty McFly there.

We took some flak from the DTV proponents on that one. They defended the new standard, saying it was the best possible one given the current state of technology and that the reception problems would diminish with each new generation of receive chips.

They were right about that. Reception did improve, and the DTV standard along with the happy coincidence of large-screen TV technology brought America HDTV in all its glory. It was broadcasting's greatest advancement since color and, all in all, a boon to the industry.

But the DTV reception has never been great, and when America starting viewing TV on mobile devices, it simply wasn't up to the task.

What's more, the standard was a flop at data delivery as several start-ups can painfully attest and it has no headroom. It can't handle the new Ultra HD picture formats that broadcasters will have to offer to remain competitive with other media.

It's clearly time for a new, more capable standard.

And the industry has one in ATSC 3.0, the product of nearly six years of effort by the Advanced Television Systems Committee, the Washington-based standards-setting body.

On Wednesday, the NAB asked the FCC to authorize the use of 3.0 on a voluntary basis, promising that it would allow broadcasters to deliver an even better TV experience (4K or Ultra HD) in the home, reach mobile devices and compete more effectively with targeted programming and advertising.

Next-generation TV "will create the bedrock for continuing innovation by the television industry for decades to come," the NAB says in its petition.

The way that NAB figures it, 3.0 could be introduced with minimal disruption. How

If the FCC permits 3.0 and the existing DTV signals to co-exist, a station or two in each market could become host stations, simulcasting — using the DTV standard — the new 3.0 programming of other stations. Consumers would have a choice: stick with their old sets or buy new ones to receive the 3.0 signals with the superior pictures and sound.

That the broadcasters were joined in the petition by the Consumer Technology Association tells me that 3.0 is the real deal, that the consumer electronics industry sees it as a spur to the proliferation of Ultra HD programming and the sale of Ultra HD TV sets.

The future of 3.0 and, I think, the future of broadcast TV now rests with the FCC.

Among the hundreds of speeches, panels sessions and what-not scheduled for the NAB Show in Las Vegas next week, the most important for TV broadcasters will be the Wednesday morning appearance of FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

This will be his moment to endorse 3.0. Let's hope it's a ringing one, but there's no telling.

So far, he has done nothing to encourage the development of the standard. Last year at the NAB he was noncommittal, saying that the FCC would review the standard when it was ready, and raising concerns about the transition to the new standard.

"We just lived through one TV transition,” Wheeler said, referring to the final switch to DTV in 2009, which he oversaw as a member of the Obama transition team. “We both know the magnitude of that challenge.... Government and broadcasting will need to work together, because it’s going to be a long and heavy lift."

Like his predecessor, fellow Democrat and Obama-appointee Julius Genachowski, Wheeler's interest in broadcasting has been mostly as a warehouse of spectrum for his preferred medium, wireless broadband. He's been gung-ho on the incentive auction, the mechanism for moving some of that TV spectrum to wireless, but hasn't done anything much to strengthen broadcasting.

So, here's his chance.

By moving quickly on 3.0 as the NAB has requested, he could create a wonderful legacy for himself. On his watch, he could say, I not only found new spectrum for wireless broadband through the incentive auction, but I put broadcasting on a new course that will insure the availability of free, universal over-the-air television for years to come.

By moving quickly, I do not mean he should take the 3.0 rulemaking lightly. He has to make sure that the DTV and 3.0 signals can share the airwaves. That is key to making the standard voluntary and to the broadcasters' transition plan of local host simulcasting.  

Don't forget. Wheeler also has a duty to protect consumers, and there are questions about how 3.0 will impact them. Are consumers who opt not to buy new 3.0 sets entitled to continue watching in HD or will simulcasts in SD be good enough for them

Congratulations are in order.

First, to the Advanced Television Systems Committee and to the engineers and the technology companies that labored under its aegis to come up with a standard that may not only service the United States, but also other parts of the world. I should note that the work on the standard is on-going, although the transmission component that concerns the FCC is final.

And then to Gordon Smith and the NAB. The broadcast networks never much liked 3.0, and, although they have never publicly said why, I think I know. They don't want to make a heavy investment in 3.0 and Ultra HD programming without a clear return on investment. Plus, they don't want their affiliates broadcasting their programming for free when they are out there trying to get paid for it through retrans and various broadband ventures.

So, it took the NAB awhile to reach the consensus that allowed it to take the lead on the FCC petition. I credit the Pearl group for that. The consortium of leading TV station groups (Cox, Tegna, Scripps, Graham, Hearst, Media General, Meredith and Raycom) bought in on 3.0 a few years ago and sold the rest of the NAB on it.

Making the standard voluntary undoubtedly helped defuse the opposition within the association. If you don't like the 3.0 game, you don't have to play. That goes for the networks as well as for small operators that simply don't have the money to upgrade to 3.0.

Sinclair deserves a special mention. A loud critic of the DTV standard, Sinclair has been beating the drum for a new one for a long time. And through its ONE Media joint venture, it spent millions of dollars making sure the foundational transmission standard of 3.0 is broadcaster-friendly.

A few years ago at lunch in Baltimore, Sinclair CEO David Smith told me a new standard along the lines of what ATSC eventually adopted would "unlock billions" in new revenue for broadcasters. He may soon have a chance to prove it.

There is still much work to do. For starters, proponents have to insure that the standard doesn't get bogged down at the FCC, that necessary further development and testing is done and that the ATSC wraps up its standards work.

But let's not worry about all that right now. Wednesday's filing was a great moment in TV broadcasting's long history of technological achievement that stretches back to the 1930s. I put it right up there with the May 1993 announcement of the Grand Alliance of technology companies that led to the development and adoption of the DTV standard.

It's a moment to celebrate at the NAB next week.


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