Fade 2022…Take 2023!

Ned Soseman, our resident expert on the regional US TV market and NextGenTV, shares his own personal perspective and some anonymous insight from those working in regional US TV stations, on what happened in 2022 and what the coming year may bring.

At many TV stations and facilities, the new calendar year is also a new Capex fiscal year. In most cases, what can be predicted about 2023 is already planned and budgeted for. The difficulty is planning for unpredicted circumstances. It’s broadcasting. Anything can happen and probably will. See 2020.

The first generation of TV people were the pioneers who worked in TV from about 1950 to 1975. The pioneers built and operated local start-up TV stations. They invented and refined TV production, workflows, and house numbering systems as unique to their stations as its news set, weather map, and on-air personalities.

Until about 1975, stations typically used three, 2” quad reel-to-reel machines, a couple of film chains and studio cameras. Some stations developed their own 16mm news films. If the news film was ‘breaking,’ news people edited it while it was still wet.

The first-generation era ended with the adaptation of inexpensive ¾” U-matic VCRs and time base correctors to make over-the-air FCC transmission of ¾ inch videotape legal, marking the dawn of ENG and collapse of 16mm news film. When my station bought its first U-matics, I felt bad for the person running the film lab and our 16mm news photogs.

Perhaps they should have learned how to carry or repair heavy ‘portable’ VTRs and video cameras. A common CP-16 TV news film camera weighs about 17 lbs. An equivalent ENG camera and recorder rig weighs about 3x as much. You had to be big to carry more than 60 lbs of ENG gear around a crime scene, stadium, or city hall on your back and shoulders.

The second generation of TV career people joined stations between about 1975 and 2000, when Betacam, DVC Pro, personal computers, computer graphics, the Video Toaster, the worldwide web, and digital editing were changing industry dynamics. The significantly reduced costs of TV production hardware provided many opportunities for broadcast engineers stay in TV, but not always at TV stations.

The third generation of TV people are those who entered the industry between about 2000 and today, when all video and video transport is digital data, stored locally or in the cloud, streamed for viewing, and the ATSC 3.0 format was rolled out. The third generation also adapted iPhones, smart phones and cellular networks for TV production and ENG.

Retirement Benefits

As generations of TV gear matured and retired, so did the generations of technicians and engineers who designed and integrated new technologies, and fixed things when it broke. As older engineers retire, many of their replacements introduced new ideas and new technologies that improved and enhanced the ways their stations and groups operate. Retired gear and fresh management ideas are the reasons some groups have changed their core technologies and workflows to maximize efficiency.

What’s interesting about TV broadcasting is that each station has a unique group of people and categories of gear ready to retire every year. During the first generation, every station in my hometown got new studio cameras one year, a new production switcher the next year, and a new 2” Quad VTR or two the year after that. Each cost about $100K-$250K in 1968, which is about $1.75 million in 2022 USD. Broadcast TV was expensive! As time goes on, purchases by category got out of sync. Stations learned that inventories of gear and people all have unique life cycles. Today’s stations know it’s time to purchase new solutions and look for retirement replacements when they see the need coming.

Stations that were repacked are benefiting from relatively new transmitters and RF systems paid for by the FCC. Those not involved in repack are finding that keeping their original DTV transmitter on the air is difficult, particularly for UHF stations using Inductive Output Tubes (IOTs), also known as klystrodes. IOTs were popular during the DTV transition 20 years ago but are difficult if not impossible to source and replace today. Thus, some TV stations need new solid-state TV transmitters, soon. Also, new ATSC 3.0 lighthouse stations typically need new RF systems, too. For some stations, the new ATSC 3.0 lighthouse RF system is the primary Capex item for 2023.

2022 Review

The year 2022 will win few popularity contests, but some people I know that own a group of radio and TV stations say that “2022 was our best year ever.” On the other hand, Evoca TV, a subscription based, NextGen TV service available in parts of the western US recently announced, “Evoca TV will discontinue operations and programming on December 31, 2022.” Condolences to Evoca and its proponents. It seemed to be a great idea, apparently ahead of its time.

A significant issue for the TV audience in 2022 is arguments between station groups and Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (MVPDs) about subscriber fee distributions. Disagreements continue to get ugly, and viewers always lose. The fact is that more revenue often comes into TV stations through subscriber fees than from commercials and sponsors. When a viewer "cuts the cord," TV stations lose revenue.

In 2023 it’s time to end the bickering about how to slice the revenue pie and halt group blackout tantrums. MVPD viewers who are cut off from seeing their favorite networks and stations don’t like or understand the pain. Is blacking out the people that your network and sponsors want to reach making viewers any happier?

Over the air viewers in some ATSC 3.0 markets are already confused as their favorite stations and diginets move to different channels. When asked about ATSC 3.0 viewer interest, one chief engineer in an active ATSC 3.0 market that we interviewed said “I’m not hearing anything, which is strange and somewhat concerning.” Is asking viewers to program their TV sets to find new channels technically overwhelming? It was much easier to find new channels when TV tuners were controlled by a big knob.

ENG van and satellite truck usage in 2022 has diminished to nearly a trickle. Of the stations we interviewed, most said bonded cellular was used for about 80% of their news coverage. For the most part, SAT trucks and ENG vans have been relegated to big events, transportation, and parades. There’s no question that bonded cellular has become the backhaul preference of choice for TV news for myriad reasons.

The pandemic forced nearly every station and group to rethink and redesign its assignments and workflows to address social distancing, cleanliness, and illness. During 2022, many of those ideas remain in place, and have substantially improved content and workflows. HEVC h.265 compression has helped reduce high-quality streaming video bandwidth by about 50%. It’s not unusual to see guests in their private homes being interviewed on TV news via their home computers.

NextGen TV Update

ATSC 3.0 advanced at a steady pace in 2022 after some stumbling during the pandemic. ATSC 3.0 missed its rollout mark in 2021 because of the pandemic, but numerous critical issues involved in the channel sharing necessary for the voluntary 3.0 rollout were partially resolved during the delay, which helped get deployments back on track as 2022 progressed.

As of December 2022, 64 US markets were on air delivering NextGen TV to viewers. In 19 markets, ATSC 3.0 is being transmitted by more than one station. As envisioned for the voluntary conversion from 1.0 to 3.0, multiple sticks in markets are essential to giving broadcasters the room they need to experiment with new business models and the PLP configurations needed to support them. According to Jim Fellinger with the Consumer Technology Association that hosts the Consumer Electronic Show (CES), “8% of TVs shipped to the U.S. this year will have NextGen TV, and we expect that to rise modestly to 12% in 2023. This is on par with our expectations. We predict half of sets will ship with NextGen TV in 2025, which is when we expect broader consumer awareness and expanded broadcaster offerings that will pique the interest of viewers.”

“To our knowledge,” Fellinger said, “supply chain issues have not been a major issue for NextGen TV chips. That said, early NextGen TV chipsets were too expensive to justify their inclusion in low- and mid-price TV sets, but we understand the industry is developing less-expensive chipsets that will allow manufacturers to include it in more models in the next couple of years.” He concluded, "NextGen TV will likely be most popular with cord cutters and existing over-the-air households. Streaming services will likely remain more popular, but NextGen TV, with the price tag of $0, will be an important option for those living on a budget, and it will offer local broadcast content.”

2022 saw NextGen TV sales continue at a steady pace with the addition of Hisense to the original three (LG Electronics, Samsung and Sony) NextGen TV vendors. Among the least expensive NextGen TV models is a 43-inch Sony set with a suggested retail price of $449. At the top of the price spectrum is a $25,000, 97-inch LG Electronics model.

Coming In 2023

The big news is that the 2023 NAB Show will no longer require vaccination documentation. However, it does require visitors to read NAB COVID-19 Infection warnings, assume the risks, and release and indemnify everyone involved with the show from legal action related to COVID-19. 2020 and 2021 were an industry marketing struggle with a travel-limiting pandemic and no NAB Shows. Most everyone made it through the challenges of no trade shows, and many have learned more about advanced internet streaming than anyone would have anticipated before the pandemic.

Virtually all the stations we interviewed agreed on an urgency to increase streaming internet platforms with alternative local news content in 2023. On the other hand, most stations are primarily SDI facilities and plan to stay that way in the foreseeable future. One station is in the market for a new house SDI router. Another is shopping for new SDI studio cameras. Some stations are beginning to experiment with in-house IP video, but as more of a sidebar than a station-wide trend.

Certainly, one of the bigger 2023 trends will continue to be REMI. Remote production from a central location makes great technical and economic sense. As more major stadiums and venues add fiber internet service, high-speed connections will become ubiquitous and more reliable. As the internet infrastructure continues to improve, REMI will inevitably become more commonplace.

In the meantime, whoever invents drone-replaceable tower obstruction lights and beacons will own the future tower lighting market. Will it happen in 2023? You know, someone must be working on it.

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