US Regional TV Broadcasting Tech Trend Snapshot

Ned Soseman gives us a rundown of some of the trends in US regional TV stations and what the biggest budget items have been in 2023.

Many of the original local TV stations were built in the late 1940’s and early 1950s when nobody had any commercial TV experience. Most new TV stations were started by existing radio stations, and they often adopted the traffic, workflow, and house numbering systems that its sister radio station had developed. Radio and TV are entirely different media, but from an engineering perspective, TV is simply radio with pictures with a lot more bandwidth. Broadcasting is broadcasting until you encounter “Technical Difficulties.”

Integrating and maintaining new technologies to successfully create, store and broadcast radio or TV content has always been the domain of broadcast engineers. However, the technology supporting linear TV broadcasting and streaming video is changing nearly as fast as Nielsen TV viewership data.

In fact, according to Nielsen in July 2023 fewer than half of TV viewers watched linear TV channels, (of those, 20% watched OTA channels and 29.5% watched cable channels). Another 37.7% watched streaming videos and nearly 13% played video games or watched physical media. YouTube attracted about 9.2% of all TV viewers. Nielsen’s measurement methodology is evolving in response to these non-linear viewing trends. Additionally, at the end of September 2023 Dish Network reported blocking 77 local TV channels due to retransmission disputes. Television broadcasting has seen better times.

Industry Snapshot

The last decade has been brutal on broadcast TV and the industry as it continues adapting to significant market and marketplace dynamics. With the headaches caused by FCC repack channel changes, the pandemic, a declining linear TV market share, ATSC 3.0 issues, and the possibility of another pandemic...  the future of local TV broadcasting feels a little threatened.

In the minds of viewers and consumers, 4K UHD is the new HDTV. ATSC 3.0 can only deliver UHD at the expense of bandwidth that can or does otherwise generate money. That’s a problem.

In TV sales departments worldwide, TV ad prices are trending lower for the first time since the first pandemic. In the meantime, the Writers Guild of America recently settled its strike, and SAG-AFTRA is expected to settle their strike soon, which translates to increased content creation costs for broadcasters.

I recently did an informal survey to several TV maintenance engineers and chief engineers asking a few generic questions to create an industry snapshot, promising not to name people, stations, or groups. The #1 2023 capital expense among those who responded was infrastructure such as building remodeling or renovation, and tighter station physical and IP security.

Where Engineering Budgets Are Going

TV facilities built in the 1950s that are still on the air from their original buildings are near the end of their building life. Many old buildings are filled with asbestos and are seriously expensive to maintain when old pipes break, and construction materials deteriorate. A couple of older stations I asked didn’t have 2023 capital budgets because of suddenly expensive infrastructure issues and/or the pandemic.

The largest anticipated 2024 capex expenditures ranged from field cameras, studio sets, newsroom computers and asset management systems to more remodeling and renovations. One station needed a new transmitter because parts for the original DTV transmitter they nursed for 22 years were virtually impossible to find.

Many stations have similar stories. More than a few replaced their original DTV transmitters and antennas with better new gear on new channels, prescribed and funded by the FCC. Others signed off and walked away with lots of cash.

Everybody I asked about the pandemic revealed similar stories about sending video and teleprompter video to and from stations and anchor’s homes. Some stations supplied laptops to facilitate remote news production. Some used web meetings as a newsgathering tool instead of satellites whenever possible. All reported considerably less uplink, downlink, and portable BAS microwave activity due to the prevalence of internet and bonded cellular feeds.

Providing confidence monitoring to remote users facilitating live remote production and remote producing was a common goal. Some stations used Zoom for teleprompter delivery. A couple of stations commented that if there is another pandemic, they will need more TeamViewer licenses.

Stations are discovering the power of the Arduino Code function of ChatGPT to automatically write custom automation code.

Stations are discovering the power of the Arduino Code function of ChatGPT to automatically write custom automation code.

One clear trend is that many laptops have been deployed by stations for fieldwork with more IP control and connectivity such as prompters and confidence monitoring. The internet and digital streaming are the most impactful technologies to local station workflows. Harnessing the internet as a tool for gathering and producing content for linear TV along with implementing maintaining and providing content for a digital channel are on the forefront of where the local TV industry is moving.

Without exception, everyone asked about their most threatening engineering department challenge in the foreseeable future agrees it is recruiting and training maintenance engineers as seasoned maintenance engineers retire. Recruiting, rebuilding, and training, and a reliable maintenance engineering team is the #1 mission of today’s TV station engineering departments.

Most unusual about my informal survey was that a couple of major TV groups wouldn’t grant permission to local engineers to answer my questions. Most had done so before. Everyone is extra cautious about security in 2023 and so am I.

Trouble In Paradise?

Most stations reported growing ATSC 3.0 viewership with a quiet ho-hum, and some agree that ATSC 3.0 is becoming mired in confusion, controversy and supply issues. Most recently, LG Electronics filed a well-publicized brief with the FCC stating it has “decided to halt” the inclusion of ATSC 3.0 in its 2024 US TV lineup due to a pending patent dispute.

Ted Koplar, the owner of a TV station I worked for, also happened to own a company that licensed a couple of its rather obscure patents to the ATSC for 3.0. When that happened several years ago, he told me of a huge number of disparate patents which were included in the ATSC 3.0 standard. He felt that the task of getting all the patent holders of all the technologies used in ATSC 3.0 to agree to terms, conditions and payments would be overwhelming. He was right. Not everyone cooperated. Now the FCC is involved. Will the FCC redefine patent rights to support ATSC 3.0?

ATSC 3.0 also has other significant technical issues. Digital rights management (DRM) is a topic threatening the future and foundation of broadcast TV itself. In one respect, not all ATSC 3.0 tuners handle DRM similarly. Some NextGen TV sets and tuners do it well, others can’t handle digital rights management at all. In all fairness, DRM issues weren’t fully resolved in the early releases of the ATSC 3.0 spec, and it is an emerging technology.

DRM frightens viewers because the FCC only requires stations to broadcast their primary network for free in ATSC 3.0. Other services such as diginet channels may only be available by paid subscription. What effect might ATSC 3.0 have on free OTA TV as we know it today?

Will broadcasters get greedy and charge viewers for nearly everything but a minimal SD primary network signal? That’s not much motivation to replace my trusty 4K display/ATSC 1.0 TV set anytime soon. This is compounded by the availability of relatively low cost add-on streaming devices which add a substantial selection of ‘free’ 4K channels to an existing set.

ATSC 1.0 Signoff

At this moment, the FCC is proposing that ATSC 1.0 stations sign off by July 2027. Of course, the FCC also proposed ending all analog TV transmission in 2006 but didn’t end it until 2009, and later for LPTV.

DTV, HDTV, and flat screen displays easily launched broadcast TV into the 21st century with a brand-new look and feel that your grandmother couldn’t ignore. The FCC also subsidized inexpensive HDTV-to-analog TV converters until virtually every viewer owned a DTV. The transition couldn’t have been easier or more attractive.

The FCC leadership’s plan during the current ATSC 3.0 transition plan is essentially for broadcasters and viewers to work things out amongst themselves and threaten non-compliant patent owners. Apparently, the subsidies ended with repack.

The difference between ATSC 1.0 HDTV and ATSC 3.0 is not dramatic to viewers, nor is UHD when viewed at or beyond the optimal HDTV viewing distance of about 2x screen size. UHD is designed to be viewed at about 1x screen size for humans to see the improved detail.

The most impressive new picture technologies are not more pixels but high dynamic range (HDR) and wide color gamut (WCG). Both require a tiny fraction of additional bandwidth compared to UHD. They depend on manufacturers making HDR and WCG a common feature in their displays. The sooner broadcasters, content creators and display manufacturers embrace HDR and WCG, the sooner all TV viewers will enjoy an easily appreciable picture improvement.

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