NextGen TV: What’s In It For Me?

TV is changing, again. Color, hi-fi, stereo, VCRs, DTV, HDTV and flat panel displays were all significant technology achievements, affordable for all TV viewers, with obvious benefits and near-overnight popularity. Viewer and station benefits of moving to the incompatible ATSC 3.0 system and NextGen TV are interesting, but a bit less clear.

Politics aside, many US radio broadcasters would agree that a few decades ago talk radio saved AM broadcasting from almost certain doom. Local TV in the 21st Century faces the same basic issue local AM radio was struggling with before its revival. The most popular radio content was music, and music sounded far better in FM's 15 kHz stereo bandwidth than AM's 5 kHz mono bandwidth. Then, a virtual shot-in-the-dark revitalized AM radio. The enabling new technology was satellite distribution. Everything else was live, unleashed creative talent with a topic and a couple of mics, engaging with the audience on toll-free phone lines. It worked so well, some FM stations switched to talk radio.

Today’s TV viewers and broadcasters face similar issues with HDR, higher frame rates and more pixels than the 1080i ceiling set by ATSC 1.0 and the FCC. What local TV needs is fresh approach to program content creation and distribution without national talk radio’s political divisiveness baggage. NextGen may be the next best chance for that pivotal opportunity. Local TV broadcasting doesn’t need more pixels, it needs more people watching.

When the general manager asks about ATSC 3.0, what details can you provide? Many local TV staff engineers and CEs know that its transmission requires 2dB more peak power headroom in the RF system than ATSC 1.0 because of its higher peak-to-average power ratio. Other than that, most engineers know it will need some vague new ancillary gear, upgraded T&M gear to test it, a new STL, and changing the exciter setting to ATSC 3.0 or replacing it. Many engineers also suspect that like establishing a station’s website and internet footprint, it will take more people to make NextGen succeed.

When your GM asks what your station can do with ATSC 3.0 that it can’t do now, do you become a deer-in-the-headlights?

More than RF

The short answer to the GM’s question is that NextGen provides more OTA bandwidth than ATSC 1.0, but insufficient to broadcast 4K UHD 24/7 without giving up most digital subchannels and other revenue opportunities. Without an internet connection, OTA-only NextGen TV linear content essentially looks and acts like ATSC 1.0 linear content.

‘ATSC 3.0’ is a coding, modulation and transmission standard. ‘NextGen TV’ is the device that receives the OTA ATSC 3.0 RF signal and integrates its content with internet data to improve and enhance the viewing experience. This article will call both ATSC 3.0 and NextGen TV ‘NextGen,’ because it’s all essentially the same thing. One transmits and the other receives the same unique DTV transmission format which is incompatible with everything else. Each accomplishes nothing without the other.

What GMs and station owners want to hear is how they can make more money with NextGen. One proposal gaining popularity among TV broadcasters is to standardize OTA broadcasting at 1080p60 HDR/WCG. In side-by-side comparisons at recent NAB Shows, 1080p60 HDR/WCG pictures looked better than the same images in 4K, even a few inches from the display. Will sponsors pay a premium price for UHD ads? Will viewers pay a premium to watch TV in UHD or HD when its free in SD?

The key to transmitting UHD 4K content OTA without giving up profitable digital bandwidth for other OTA revenue streams is the internet connection. The additional bits to boost a 1080p OTA frame to a 4K UHD TV frame can be fed over the internet connection. The content from both signals is buffered and reconciled inside the NextGen receiver for proper display.

The "one free ATSC 3.0 SD channel" FCC rule may turn out to be how local TV broadcasting generates new revenue, or how it self-destructs in the midst of a major cord-cutting trend. The future of local TV is about as clear as that, and NextGen won’t be the only new wireless pay-TV powerhouse in town looking for new ways to double- and triple-dip more money from consumers. Say ‘hello’ to 5G TV and near-universal GbE internet service.

Something new needs to resonate with TV viewers to drive NextGen and/or 5G TV to the consumer electronics (CE) throne of ‘The Next Big Thing.” We know NextGen improves emergency communications, has the potential for UHD, introduces Google-managed targeted ad content, and can deliver targeted program content. The targeted content can trickle over internet connections and be stored in local NextGen TV devices to be automatically inserted later.

NextGen isn’t the internet on your TV or TV on the internet. We already have that. Speakers at several ATSC 3.0 Technical Sessions at the 2019 NAB Show strongly emphasized what NextGen is not: It's not a browser for your TV. Instead, NextGen is a clever, new,  21st Century digital coding scheme for improved spectrum efficiency within the 6 MHz broadcast channel the FCC allows. TV spectrum efficiency schemes aren't new. Video interlace was invented in 1930 to double the lines of perceived vertical resolution without increasing bandwidth. When NTSC was adopted in 1953, it included a color subcarrier to lower bandwidth requirements and maintain backward compatibility with B&W TVs. ATSC 1.0 was the state of the art in 1995.

Competing for People’s Time

In my humble opinion, local TV stations began losing market shares when stations and networks shifted to targeting fractured markets instead of the general population. Now, instead of one station getting a 30+ market share in a time slot, the few leaders of the content source mob compete for ratings in the twos and threes. That’s progress?

Local broadcast TV doesn’t need more pixels, it needs a bigger pie. Enlarging the local TV pie requires the additional ingredients to join in because they feel a need to. Will the NextGen experience provide adequate incentive to compel that strong of individual consumer response?

From one perspective, NextGenTV and 5G NR are exciting uncharted territories. From another perspective, both are interactive TV renamed. Sony introduced interactive video in 1978 and it splashed like a pebble in the Pacific. More recently, second-screen TV debuted to similar hype and yawns.

The best thing about free OTA TV is that it’s easy and free. OTA viewers don’t even need to pay attention. The future OTA TV content battle will be between passive lean-back and immersive lean-forward viewing experiences, and what it costs to watch.

Future TV

Content will always be king, and the evening news, weather and sports format hasn't changed over 80 years of huge technical progress. Why? Because news content in that presentation format passes the test of time. Over the years, other news show formats seemed like good ideas. Many were tried and flopped. The ubiquitous local TV news format is ageless because it follows the Top Two rules of broadcasting: 1) Keep it simple, and 2) If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.

People’s lives are bombarded with new technology. More techno whiz-bangery risks confusing viewers who are happy enjoying the most popular, simple, accessible and passive entertainment experience in the history of mankind. Most viewers during the golden age of TV were thrilled by the handful of channels they could watch on a Sony Trinitron TV with rabbit ears. It wasn’t the color TV that attracted viewers, it was the content. Many TV classics like the Twilight Zone were never in color yet they remain powerful and popular to this day.

Branding is identifying and delivering what people expect. People expect watching TV to be something that can be as satisfying to do while preparing or eating fried chicken as it is by simply staring at the screen. Every local station has its own unique brand of compelling free content, personalities, and associated fun. The brand is the most unique and valuable property a station owns. The internet brand is pointing and clicking across the World Wide Web with a mouse and keyboard that requires at least one clean hand and some thought.

Right now, NextGen is a new creative world open to all imaginations and interpretations to create the TV of the future. Is there a NextGen Demo Reel? No. Is there a simulated example of future programming unique to NextGen to see and share? No. Does NextGen have a logo? No. Will someone make lots of money with NextGen? Maybe. Will NextGen become a popular new TV and consumer electronics platform or will it have an identity crisis? About all TV engineers can do is provide reliable conduit for content, ensure every bit is in the right place at the right time, and hope the audience can’t get enough of the new NextGen experience.

Viva Las Vegas

Is it irony that NAB is always in Las Vegas or is it the only convention city that can effortlessly seat an extra 90,000 guests for dinner at the same time? I’d say it’s both. Broadcast engineers love to eat when someone else is paying, and many visit Vegas to gamble on the future of their station and career by betting this technology and not betting on that. The casino action on the Vegas Strip is a sideshow during NAB week.

The Las Vegas Convention Center and surrounding hotel suites is where the big-money action takes place that week. Like any Vegas casino, the super high-rollers play in special rooms behind-the-scenes. Meantime the other players and visitors walk the floor, looking at what the high-rollers on the floor are doing and betting on a ROI from what they can afford to spend. The big bets at the next few NAB Shows will be on NextGen.

Some major broadcast groups such as Nexstar and Sinclair are already placing their bets at the virtual NextGen table, and nearly everyone else in the TV broadcasting crowd is watching like a casino table scene in a James Bond movie. Some are leaning towards placing bets along with the big players. Others are contemplating. Some are walking away. I know. The person who founded and owned the FOX affiliate I helped build and worked for couldn’t visualize improved revenue from one NextGen TV station in market #75, or what additional capital and operating expenses he might incur to become a competitive NextGen broadcaster. During Phase 1 repack tower lease negotiations, he sold his station to NextGen pioneer Nexstar, closed his facilities and retired, all in less than 30 days.

The moral to this story is that you can’t win if you don’t play. The first free, local OTA TV station that consistently gets 35+ ratings shares with unique NextGen and/or 5G content and the person who creates it will win the broadcast TV master jackpot, the CE throne and Emmy nominations. It could be anyone. Are you in? Game on! Good luck!

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