Local TV Looks Beyond TV

Local broadcasters are used to mission-critical because everything is mission-critical. Moving critical data may be the right move.

What is usually considered ‘The Golden Age of Television’ was the time before local color TV, cable TV, videotape or DVRs. There were only three national commercial networks covering the US and a 50% ratings shares weren’t that unusual. It is also when the FCC issued the first commercial TV licenses. They soon earned the reputation as a license to print money, especially when the lucrative local TV advertising pie was only three or four slices.

Then came videotape, cable, VCRs, DVRs, DTV, HDTV, high speed internet and smart phones. Today, the internet and broadcast diginets provide thousands of easy-to-receive local TV channels and other news and entertainment screen sources for viewers to choose from. The result of electronic communications technology progress for local TV broadcasters is that the local TV advertising pie has turned to slivers.

New-Way

ATSC 3.0 aka NextGen TV is a new blank chapter in local TV broadcasting history. It combines local TV and the internet, making two-way the new way. Broadcasting has always been one-way. Audience feedback has always been by mail, phone calls, email and ratings. What are local TV broadcasters going to do with two-way data feedback?

What broadcasters are not going to do is wait around for someone to build the killer NextGen TV app that revolutionizes television overnight. A more immediate, tangible, and potentially profitable NextGen TV benefit may not be more or better TV programs at all.

Transmitting ATSC 3.0 is easy. About 1000 TV stations took advantage of FCC Repack reimbursements and added a bit more money to install ATSC 3.0-ready systems. The new transmitters are far more reliable and efficient than most they replaced. Many can instantly switch from ATSC 1.0 to 3.0 transmission with an exciter setting.

The content stations feed their ATSC 3.0 transmitter and the internet, and who and/or what will do the new ATSC 3.0-specific work makes moving forward with it a bit more complicated. New benefits of ATSC 3.0 are still being discovered, investigated and invented, and early progress as it affects daily local TV operations and content will mostly be incremental.

The transition to NextGen TV could confuse and challenge viewers more seriously than repack channel rescans. When NextGen TVs capable of receiving both ATSC 1.0 and 3.0 signals start selling for a few hundred dollars like ATSC 1.0 TVs sell for now, people will buy it. Modern flat-panel HDTV displays don’t burn-in or wear out like CRTs. The challenge is to get viewers to experience ATSC 3.0 immersive content and convince people to replace their perfectly good TVs. How likely is that to occur in a box store TV department?

Marketing experts agree that NextGen TV will not be a viable local media buy until it has reached at least a 50% market share, and the pandemic has delayed the production and delivery of consumer NextGen TVs. How can local TV broadcasters use NextGen TV to increase station revenue without a viable market? Engineers have a good Plan B.

Better than Showbiz?

Data carriers are the ones printing money in today’s wireless electronic communications industry. Broadcasters long for the old days when they printed money. Could NextGen TV become a significant new revenue source for local TV broadcasters that has nothing to do with entertainment, news, public information, or sports?

Typically, data carriers spend about 60 cents/hour/device for the electricity it takes to deliver a single HD stream. Broadcasting’s unique one-to-many ability makes economic and technical sense when delivering popular live content to huge audiences.

The FCC only requires a licensed ATSC 3.0 station to broadcast one free TV channel. The rest of the bandwidth is prime wireless data real estate. ATSC 3.0 is a wireless standard designed for fixed or mobile use with powerful built-in security. Cellular, Wi-Fi and ATSC 3.0 all datacast IP packets wirelessly.

What do broadcasters have that data carriers don’t? Tall towers, high power, a reliable signal that blankets a market, and a strong station brand. Even better, the technical challenges and expenses for stations broadcasting OTA content don’t change with audience size. More viewers allow higher ad rates.

Mission Critical, As Always

Datacasting is big departure from sponsored entertainment, news, information, and sports, but it can serve the community in more relevant and convenient 21st Century ways. It also represents significant new revenue potential for stations to leverage their IP infrastructure, technical expertise, and reputation to reliably move and broadcast more profitable packets and bits 24/7.

Local broadcasters are used to mission-critical because everything is mission-critical. The difference is more data. Data is agnostic. The critical mission of datacasting is delivery perfection, security and speed, not to inform or entertain.

During a time when local TV broadcasting infrastructure is transitioning from SDI to IP, the business of local TV stations may soon come to include large-scale data delivery. The clearest technical trend in TV broadcasting today is the move away from dedicated broadcasting equipment and controls (aka ‘big iron’), towards IP everything. IP is proven, its software-based, and most of it runs on COTS systems and server farms that don’t necessarily have to be on-site.

Growing numbers of TV engineering managers are saying they have bought their last rack. In many cases, a TV facility can move to the Cloud without missing a beat, as many stations demonstrated with the pandemic. Once again, broadcast engineers made lemonade from lemons.

Changes in the TV Plant

Because of the IP transition, the Cloud and ATSC 3.0, TV broadcast facilities are positioned to be complementary to the data carriers. All some stations may need is more space on the demark wall. Will selling data bandwidth be more profitable than broadcasting TV diginets?

Work is underway on ATSC 3.0 receivers specifically designed for datacasting-only. One use envisioned by ATSC 3.0 leaders is to blast a simultaneous nationwide update to software in specific automobile models, for example. No one can simultaneously deliver one-to-as-many-as-you-like data packets in a geographic market less expensively than TV broadcasters.

At the January 2020 CES, Sinclair Broadcast Group and SK Telecom announced a joint venture named Cast.era in Arlington, VA. Cast.era plans to provide ATSC 3.0 NextGen TV solutions for the ATSC 3.0 rollout, starting with Sinclair in 2020. At the show, SK Telecom showcased news and sports broadcasting using ATSC 3.0 from Sinclair’s NextGen TV station KSNV in Las Vegas. The objective is to synchronize and harmonize a data-specific broadcast wireless network and a 5G network.

Bits for Bucks

Probably the best part of broadcast datacasting is that it is virtually automatic. Broadcasters don’t create anything but another stream to transmit. Once connected, content, operation and monitoring is fully automatic. Bottom line profit per bit could eventually exceed that of broadcast TV content.

ATSC 3.0 OTA transmission can be converged with mobile and other IP networks to create a broadcast-broadband hybrid stream. Broadcasters will be able to enhance the experience by combining ATSC 3.0 one-way RF signals with mobile and other IP networks that support two-way data communication.

SK Telecom and Sinclair expect to achieve synergies by combining SK Telecom’s telecommunication technologies and Sinclair’s broadcasting infrastructure. Projecting that all U.S. television stations will eventually deploy ATSC 3.0 services, the two companies will actively explore and pursue datacasting opportunities in the U.S. market.

The Cast.era joint venture intends to build a cloud infrastructure for ATSC 3.0 broadcasting by applying SK Telecom’s cloud technologies including mobile edge computing (MEC), cloud structure management technology named ‘SKT All Container Orchestrator (TACO)’ and virtual network solution named ‘Simply Overlay Network Architecture (SONA)’ to Sinclair’s broadcasting systems. SK Telecom’s cloud infrastructure will permit virtualized and automated merging of both Internet and broadcast platforms using centralized services. Based on MEC technologies, Cast.era plans to introduce new media services applied with augmented reality.

HDTV demonstrated that revolutionary new technology doesn’t guarantee higher revenue. Datacasting is a business plan to generate a new revenue stream independent from the ratings and sponsors model.

TV stations, broadcast groups and industry cooperation can make nationwide NextGen TV datacasting a new wireless technology that benefits everyone. It is clearly the most exciting, new, profit-enhancing, and real opportunity unique to local TV stations since local newscasts.

Datacasting information for this The Broadcast Bridge feature came from a webinar from Sinclair Broadcast Group called “Monetizing ATSC 3.0 Datacasting.” 

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