ATSC 3.0 : Right Place, Right Time

Many people and cultures celebrate special New Year dates. Organizations designate fiscal years. Broadcasters traditionally mark their new technology year mid-April, at annual NAB Shows. Old habits die hard.

I’ve been a broadcaster, exhibitor, or journalist at 42 consecutive NAB Shows thru 2019. Most marked annual milestones for digital technology from CGs, TBCs and Squeeze Zooms in the 70s, to broadcast camcorders, Ampex ADO, the NewTek Video Toaster, and umpteen videotape formats in the 80's.

Until HDTV debuted in the ‘90s, the best TV images ever seen at a NAB show were as crude and clunky as the expensive gear that made and displayed them, and engineers praised them. When DTV, HDTV, flat panel TVs, cheap microprocessors that could handle HDTV, high-speed internet and streaming media converged in the early 21st Century, it leveled the content acquisition, production, distribution and display playing fields.

Currently, TV broadcasting and video content streaming is a crowded digital rocket ride into the unknown. New technology is marking milestones faster than annual or virtual trade shows can keep up. The once exclusive, only-millionaires-can-make-real-TV club is evaporating.

What do broadcasters have that others don’t? Celebrities, call letters, a brand, a high-power transmitter and a tall tower. It’s not about the number of pixels. It’s about the content, those who create it, the viewers who watch it and the sponsors that pay to associate with it. The engineering mission is to keep the content flowing, and easy to receive everywhere in the market.

Imagining An April NAB Show

It’s been 23 months since the last NAB Show. If the pandemic had magically ended and we were all headed to ‘Vegas, my 'show hits' bet would be on all things IP. The pandemic caused a new convergence because IP video was mature and easy to adapt, and it solved sudden social distancing issues at stations and for people being interviewed on TV. The new age of ubiquitous high-speed service allowed broadcast TV's quick integration of internet acquisition sources in live programming and proves what NetFlix has known for years.

IP also enables tools necessary for remote newscast production such as IFB, PL communication, remote monitor and prompter streams to connect reporters at home to the studio like they were at the other end of the stage. For engineers, IP enables remote monitoring and control of settings on remote devices that provide IP control, from your office desktop or from home at 3 a.m. IP can save trouble and money, and it promotes social distancing. Bingo!

Social distancing will challenge future NAB Shows.

Social distancing will challenge future NAB Shows.

New Trends

The flood of fast-moving new technologies has turned testing and defining new pro audio, video and broadcast TV video standards into a small industry. Thank You professional organizations for their dedication and cooperation to set new standards the industry needs to stay on the leading edge.

The trend I find most exciting is the new cooperation between TV station groups, demonstrated by ATSC 3.0 testing and market lighthouse agreements. The new relationships will help pave the way into nationwide ATSC 3.0 data distribution networks.

New group alliances will build the Broadcast Internet, and relieve cellular providers of the massive, hardware intensive, simultaneous data dumps that the automotive, transportation and financial industries want. ATSC 3.0 TV stations are in the right place at the right time to add that type of service without missing a beat.

Fix It in Post

The TV viewing resolution revolution that began with S-VHS seems to have found its limit at 4K, until people can see better than 20/20. The half of TV viewers watching on hand-held devices can’t see more detail than 4K. Steve Jobs said the number of pixels needed for an Apple Retina display is the point where pixels are not visible to the naked eye, which is 300 PPI at about one foot.

More pixels than 4K on big screens under 80” are virtually invisible to 20/20 eyes at a comfortable TV viewing distance. HDR/WCG HDTV makes more sense because it's impressive at any distance. On the other hand, there are plenty of technical and creative reasons why producing in 8K is better than producing in 4K, even for HD distribution. More pixels provide more options in post. Never say never. In 2031, 8K might not be enough.

TV Is Wireless

Broadcasting was born when a second receiver tuned in one signal. What makes broadcast TV signals different from other wireless signals in 2021 is that broadcast TV signals are one-way. TV transmission isn’t affected by the number of receivers simultaneously tuned in. Other wireless systems require hardware-intensive, private, two-way RF communication with every device. The larger the numbers of destinations and data payloads, the more the Broadcast Internet’s ‘infinite-receivers’ advantage makes significant business sense.

Better ways to gather and create content may be the future of broadcasting as TV veterans think of it, but the emerging future of local TV revenue is the power to economically blast private data to an unlimited number of digital devices simultaneously, with no impact on regular TV programming.

Many transmitter engineers have occasionally wondered if their powerful RF systems might be good for something more than TV. ATSC 3.0 is the answer because it transmits IP packets that don’t need handshakes, which allows viewers to watch OTA ATSC 3.0 TV without an internet connection. Return data from a mobile receiver, if necessary, uses Wi-Fi or cellular data.

Live NAB Show Technical Sessions covered complex issues quickly. Streaming with instant replays make them easier to understand.

Live NAB Show Technical Sessions covered complex issues quickly. Streaming with instant replays make them easier to understand.

Testing, One, Two, 3.0

Engineers keep systems stable and pictures flawless by monitoring and testing. Observing an issue on a TV screen is subjective. Identifying the source is objective and typically requires T&M gear to isolate.

In TV facilities and live TV production, the more connected and IP friendly station gear is the easier it is to remotely monitor and control it. Broadcasters have embraced IP. Some production facilities appear to be less enthusiastic.

Simen Frostad, Chairman at Bridge Technologies recently blogged that Haivision reported “40% of production facilities aren’t making any use of IP.” He wrote “we’d hate for our incredible understanding of network monitoring to be limited to only a small section of the market. We believe more than anything that the integration of effective monitoring into all systems – IP or otherwise – is vital to ensuring QoS, QoE, and thus, bottom-line profitability. Monitoring our message, and it’s not just limited to the ‘IPers’.” The Broadcast Internet will need critical monitoring.

Paul Briscoe, Chief Architect at TAG Video Systems said in a recent webinar, “Content has to go through a whole bunch of paths to get to your endpoints. This could be through multiple types of distribution including OTT, legacy distribution and so on. These are complex system architectures. They may be hybrid ground and cloud deployment. Just about everybody is running hybrid ground and cloud deployment because of the current work situation.” He continued, “This requires varying priorities of monitoring and visualization because some content is extremely high-value. Other content of less value but still of value and some stuff you may not need to monitor as aggressively as other things. Live events, of course, require the ultimate in monitoring and keeping track of things working.”

Paradigm Change, Again

While without physical NAB Shows or IBCs, the direction of broadcast technology has moved from new-tech driven pushes to changing-needs pulls. The shame is, we can’t go to international trade shows to see, hear, touch, feel, and ask questions about new technology as usual.

Did ‘as usual’ go to lunch and not coming back? We’ll find out this fall. IBC 2021 is scheduled in September, and NAB has rescheduled both it’s Las Vegas Show and NAB New York Show in October. Broadcast people have been doing all they can do to stay healthy and may decide the travel and crowds risks aren't worth it.

In the meantime, new technology makes many solutions available for trial on the internet, or as SaaS in the cloud. You can try before you buy on your system, at your station, and show it to others, without a sales visit.

YouTube is filled with user reviews of just about every current professional and broadcast video and audio product. Most is objective, not everyone loves everything, and most show why or why not. It's about as close as it gets to visiting a real exhibit and hearing what others are saying about the gear.

Most challenging aspect of virtual international trade shows is the fact that virtual visitors will experience no more than their HDMI monitor and sound system can give them. You can’t see 8K on a 4K monitor or feel immersive audio from a pair of 1” built-in speakers.

Part of the fun of visiting NAB or IBC is having your socks knocked off by huge video displays with kilowatts of multi-channel audio. It’s a theatrical experience that can’t be duplicated on desktops, tablets or phones, and it illustrates the marketing challenge for manufacturers.

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