If you need a magnifying glass to see a better TV picture, it’s probably not a serious paradigm shift.
What has changed the most over the course of broadcast TV technical history is the price of admission, the elimination of generation loss, HD and IP.
Now seems like a good opportunity to look at who local TV broadcasters are and where they are going, because right now there is a growing list of options for stations and viewers. When TV required millions of dollars to produce, nearly everyone could receive it for free with rabbit ears. Today, people are collectively paying millions to receive TV and producing content with their phones. Strange times indeed.
Until the late 1970’s, popular broadcast TV production gear such as cameras, switchers, VTRs and CGs individually cost more than a new house. The most expensive analog TV cameras and VTRs of yesterday are decaying in landfills. Today, the 'better, faster, cheaper' trend has never been stronger, and the price of admission into the TV club has never been lower. A changing handful of technology stars made the most significant changes to TV broadcasting and viewing every decade. My short list:
1950s: 2” Quad videotape
1960s: Color TV, Electronic CG
1970s: Satellites, ENG, U-Matic, Digital TBC
1980s: Betacam, Digital VTRs, Video editing and live switching on personal computers
1990s: Digital video servers
2000s: HD, DTV, Flat panel displays
2010s: Streaming video, Smart phones, 4K
2020: Remote operations, ATSC 3.0
HD Or 4K?
In 2020, a camera that shoots content that meets Netflix technical specifications can be purchased for about US $15K. Add another US $20K for sticks, lights, special lenses, filters and sound gear, and edit the content on your computer. Total cost for a new, digital glass-to-glass system is less than what the last 1” Type C analog VTR sold for. Just add talent on both sides of the camera.
Netflix technical specifications are higher than broadcast because their minimum requirement is true 4K. Local TV broadcasters continue to prove that HD is fine for TV because they can't yet transmit 4K and content is king. Most viewers aren’t glued to big flat screens. Depending on the content and its timeliness, a steady, live iPhone shot with an app like TVU Networks TVU Anytime, LiveU LU-Smart, or Dejero LivePlus looks good on every screen.
Lately, stations have learned that viewers are hungry for local information and enjoy seeing their favorite local TV people, whether from the studio or reporting from home. We can argue about details and lenses, but landscape format iPhone video looks better with every new model, and it can be 4K.
Choices And Options
Stations must deliver content to all viewing options to maximize visibility and ratings. Broadcasting is the original wireless system, but today broadcasters are competing for audience and RF spectrum. Viewers can watch station content OTA, OTT, streaming, or from a MVPD or ISP. Blanketing a DMA with a strong RF footprint won’t guarantee everyone will watch it, and stations work hard to ensure their streams and feeds are reliable alternatives to RF OTA. Modern test gear allows stations to monitor and verify their live content quality off-air and across the internet.
The most powerful feature of television has always been its simple user interface.
Viewers are the other side of the equation. They decide when and how they will watch TV and what they will watch it on. Are they watching on a big flat-screen or on their phone? TV was once a one-to-many in the audience. Smartphones are turning TV viewing into a one-to-one experience, like radio has always been, and some TV production decisions are changing accordingly.
Most viewers aren’t aware of Nextgen TV, but they soon will be. What about 5G, Starlink, or the recent US $ 100bn universal fiber broadband plan? Big corporations and governments are throwing money at new ways for viewers to see local TV content, while a few rugged OTA viewers still wonder where their repacked station went.
Towers And Brands
A station’s three most prized possessions are its license, its tower, and its brand. The first two are relatively permanent. Branding never ends. Stations strive to be the top-of-mind, best choice to keep viewers entertained, informed, and connected. Many news stations brand themselves as an active force in shaping a positive future in their community. “We work for our viewers. They are our bosses” has been echoed in many ways at station marketing strategy sessions.
The technology struggle ahead for TV broadcasters to understand what “our bosses” want. Clearly, ATSC 1 needs to retire because Nextgen TV is the path to the future. It gives broadcasters new ways to maximize delivered content quality that is scaled by signal strength and supplemented by IP. It also gives broadcasters the ability to broadcast UHD content using IP for the detail difference signal that is added to the OTA HD signal to reproduce UHD in the receiver.
Right now, groups and stations are building ATSC 3.0 transmission facilities for commercial broadcasting. Many will be local ATSC 3.0 host stations, and many are planning to sign on this year. The transmission side is on track. The receiver side is not. Pandemic issues have caused receiver production delays and raise questions about TV model availabilities, delivery, and pricing. For ATSC 3.0 to be a commercial success it must have at least 50% of the audience. In other words, millions of Nextgen TVs need to fill Walmart shelves, priced to sell. Its not a premium, its a standard. No gouging.
Sell The Sizzle Not The Steak
Baby Nextgen is smiling. Crawling and walking is next. Nextgen TV stations will become the new home of local TV steaks, but new Nextgen TV features need new sizzle to excite and motivate viewers into buying it. Steak moves people’s brains. Sizzle moves people’s hearts and pocketbooks. What will people see on Nextgen TV that they have never seen before? There are no second chances to make a first impression and chances are it will happen in a local box store TV aisle. Will a movie on Nextgen TV look different than anywhere else? Not without some magic.
Will immersive audio improve the 6 o’clock local news ratings? Maybe, but more serious ideas are being explored to make TV more effective. Combined IP technology takes TV’s capabilities to entertain and inform to new dimensions. Trailblazing broadcast groups are working on apps using the new features that will get the format and viewer market crawling and walking. Many repacked stations took the opportunity to upgrade their RF systems to ATSC 3.0-ready, and are easy to enable.
iPhones and Androids were introduced well ahead of the huge range of cool apps that made them popular. Gray TV CEO, Chairman Hilton Howell has similarly compared the rollout of Nextgen TV to early smartphones.
Creating or supplementing digital content using Nextgen TV’s new apps and capabilities in amazing ways is the new challenge for creative minds. Excited viewers will be the key to success. Viewers bought into HDTV and flat panel screens because the improvement was overwhelmingly obvious. Would people be watching HDTV today if TVs were big, heavy CRTs? Nextgen TV needs a similar convergence of paradigm shifts to sell itself.
TV viewers have a history of rejecting promising new technologies such as second screens, 3D TV, Betamax, LaserDiscs, interactive TV and similar consumer electronics flops. The best TV viewing is a passive experience that people can enjoy without using their hands or paying complete attention. Some people can doze off and enjoy it. Watching TV only requires two actions - channel and volume. The fact that a viewer can prepare and eat a messy plate of buffalo wings while enjoying TV and not miss anything is what keeps TV unique and popular in our point-and-click world.
Broadcast Bridge Survey
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