Sinclair’s ONE Media on ATSC 3.0 and the Future of ‘Next Gen TV’

It probably shouldn’t be all that surprising that the people leading ONE Media 3.0 are pretty bullish on ATSC 3.0’s potential. After all, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group subsidiary’s main goal is to help build and launch the new broadcasting standard, also known as “Next Gen TV.” And fresh off a successful launch late last month in Las Vegas, ONE Media President Mark Aitken and Executive Vice President Jerald Fritz spoke with us about what’s next for ATSC 3.0 and why they think it’s one of the biggest changes to happen in the TV industry.

Next Gen TV 101

To catch everyone up: ATSC 3.0 is the latest broadcasting standard for over-the-air (OTA) TV stations. The standard allows OTA stations to broadcast in up to 4K resolution (up from the 720p and 1080i resolutions currently supported). High-dynamic range (HDR) and more robust surround sound support are also available, but perhaps the most intriguing features stem from the way ATSC 3.0 weaves traditional OTA broadcasting with broadband internet.

Fritz said it’s one of the biggest changes to happen to the television industry in the past 80 years, bigger than 2009’s switch from analog to digital and, perhaps, even more significant than the jump from black-and-white to color.

To get there, though, requires a bit of work both for broadcasters as well as consumers, or what Aitken and Fritz refer to as the “transmit” and “receive” sides, respectively.

On the transmit side, Aitken says the industry has been prepping for years to lay the groundwork for an ATSC 3.0 transition, including having hardware in place well ahead of this year’s initial expansion into key American markets. For many of the recent launches, he said, much of the prepping and updating has actually been on the software side.

“In many cases, you’re not even swapping out gear,” Aitken said, adding that much of the prep work can be done remotely.

That early groundwork and the ability to update systems remotely has helped broadcasters adjust to the impacts from the COVID-19 pandemic, and while media executives have discussed the outbreak’s impact on ATSC 3.0 launch plans, Aitken and Fritz remain optimistic.

“We’re pretty confident things are going to move pretty quickly,” Fritz said.

Still, he acknowledged that progress in some markets has slowed. For example, the ATSC 3.0 launch in Las Vegas, which saw four stations owned by Sinclair, Scripps, and Nextstar all come online, was originally supposed to occur in time for April’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show, but was pushed to late May. However, as ONE Media launches more stations and gets more experience under its belt, Fritz said future launches should get easier over time.

With that Las Vegas launch, there are at least seven markets around the country with at least one ATSC 3.0 station online: Portland, Boise, Santa Barbara, Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando, and now Las Vegas. Back at January’s Consumer Electronics Show, broadcasters were aiming to get around 60 areas, including the country’s top 40 markets online by year’s end. And it remains to be seen just how close the industry can come to hitting that goal despite the pandemic’s effects. Sinclair itself is still aiming to get around 17 stations up and running with ATSC 3.0 by the end of the year, and with Las Vegas in their rear-view mirror, Aitken said Salt Lake City, Nashville, and Pittsburgh are among the cities they’re eyeing next.

While the industry has been working for years to ensure hardware is ready and available on the transmit side, things are little different on the receiving end, aka OTA television viewers. ATSC 3.0 is not backward compatible with previous standards, so consumers looking to take advantage of the new tech will need equipment with hardware support. In most cases, that will likely come in the form of new TVs with built-in ATSC 3.0-compatible tuners, or external tuners you can use with older TVs.

“We’re getting the chips in devices on the receive side,” Fritz said, adding that some 20 new TVs from LG, Samsung, and Sony should be available now or in the near-future. It’s worth pointing out, however, that existing TVs won’t become obsolete overnight. Stations that launch ATSC 3.0 broadcasts are required to continue transmitting via ATSC 1.0 for five years, giving consumers time to wait for more hardware support to permeate the market and, hopefully, drive down costs.

As for what viewers can expect on those new ATSC 3.0 sets, it’ll also take time for true 4K HDR content to become the norm — just like it did when standard definition (SD) video gradually gave way to high definition (HD) content.

Aitken said big events, like football and concerts will likely be among the first content types to broadcast in 4K HDR over the air.

“A lot of premiere events should start to come online as more stations support (ATSC 3.0),” he said. “The industry is sort of picking up the ball and running with it.”

Handy in an Emergency

Despite the improvements to video and audio quality, both Aitken and Fritz said the most interesting aspect of ATSC 3.0 is how it can leverage broadcasting and broadband internet.

“There’s a whole interactive part of this standard that allows broadcast signals to interact and interlope with internet-delivered signals and provide even broader experiences,” Aitken said.

By combining OTA signals with broadband, Fritz said broadcasts could reach deeper into buildings, potentially allowing for improved reception and picture quality, as well as access to OTA content where it was previously unavailable.

They also said the ability to combine OTA and broadband could make ATSC 3.0 an ideal platform during emergencies, especially compared to internet or cellular alone.

“Getting messages to many is easier on broadcast,” Aitken said. “We’re the high-capacity heavy hauler.”

In local emergencies, he said, cellular networks can be overwhelmed as scores of people try to contact loved ones and emergency services. He added that data throttling can also become an issue, as it did during the 2018 California wildfires.

“We have the capability within ATSC 3.0 to target just those emergency responders,” Fritz said, adding they can use the broadcast standard to relay key info, like maps and floor plans to those who need them.

Circling back to the ongoing pandemic, Aitken said the sustained situation has stressed other communication methods and leaves less overhead available when more demand is needed.

“With COVID-19, what used to be peak capacity has sort of become constant capacity,” he said.

A Supplement More Than a Replacement

ATSC 3.0 could also improve internet connectivity in non-emergency situations as well, though we’ll have to wait and see how various industry players leverage that potential. Last month, FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr seemed optimistic about the potential for ATSC 3.0 to act as a new avenue to high-speed internet, even promoting the term “broadcast internet” as he discussed plans to explore the possibility at future FCC meetings.

While the exact specifics of how a broadcast internet system would work remain unclear, Aitken and Fritz said ATSC 3.0 will likely be best used as a complement to existing internet services, rather than a full-on replacement.

“Next Gen TV service is better suited as a supplement to internet delivery services,” they said. “Broadcasting has the advantage of an enormously efficient one-to-many architecture, but is also only one-way. It’s a highly efficient distribution, but relies on a return path from the internet to provide services. That’s why we see Next Gen as a complementary service, not a substitute.”

Over The Air and On The Go

Beyond the new video features and internet-backed capabilities, Aitken and Fritz said the most significant thing on the horizon for ATSC 3.0 is mobile, as in receiving OTA content on your phones and tablets.

Like older TVs, current phones will likely need some sort of external dongle to gain access to OTA content, but work is underway to get hardware support built into future mobile devices. In fact, Aitken said, had COVID-19 not happened, the first broadcast-capable mobile phone likely would’ve been shown off at NAB this year. It’s a reference design, as opposed to a product meant to hit store shelves, but it could pave the way for phones having built-in support in the near future. Aitken said he expects MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) to be among the first to offer “free OTA TV” on phones as early as next year.

“We’re focused on bringing that television experience to all devices,” he said.

It’s clear both Aitken and Fritz are excited by the opportunities ATSC 3.0 presents. Of course, potential and execution are two different things, so we’ll continue keeping an eye on the ATSC 3.0 rollout as the year progresses. Plenty of questions still remain, including how quickly consumers will adopt ATSC 3.0-compliant TVs and tuners, how they’ll react to the potential for more personalized and targeted advertising, and how quickly will mobile users warm to OTA content on the go. Discovering the answers to those questions will take time, of course, as ATSC 3.0 becomes more widespread and broadcasters and consumers become more familiar with its capabilities.

As they say in the TV industry: Stay tuned.

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