US Broadcast 2023 Review

Ned Soseman shares a personal perspective on the state of US broadcast in 2023. Most would agree, 2023 brought myriad improvements over 2020, 2021 and 2022.

The most people to ever visit an NAB Show was 115,300 at the 2000 NAB Show. It was at that time the broadcast TV industry was transitioning from analog NTSC to digital transmission and HDTV content. Nearly all video technologies in TV stations became obsolete virtually overnight, but business was strong, and stations were investing major capital on expensive digital HDTV replacements because everyone could see the difference.

Fast forward to before the pandemic at the 2019 Las Vegas NAB Show. It attracted about 91,400 visitors. During the 39 months between April 2017 and the July 2020 repack deadline, 987 full-power and Class A TV stations bought and installed new transmitters and antennas to repack on new channels. In many instances the FCC helped stations and groups pay for the repack move and stations with deadlines were spending money.

The 2020 and 2021 Las Vegas NAB shows were cancelled. The 2022 NAB attracted 52,468 and required a vaccine certificate to enter the LVCC. The 2023 NAB Show didn't require vax certificates and attracted about 65,000 people. Many of them were sharing and searching for new social distancing-friendly technology solutions.

Similarly in Europe, IBC 2019 attracted a record number of 56,390 visitors. IBC 2022 attracted 37,071 people, and IBC 2023 attracted 43,065. Visitor numbers are rising, but both the NAB Show and IBC have a way to go before they set new attendance records.

Sales Funds Budgets

In 2023, U.S. TV station sales departments and business offices experienced advertising revenues estimated to be 61.3 bn USD. TV ad revenues in the U.S. are about half that of worldwide TV ad revenues (132 bn USD in 2023). Post-pandemic TV advertising spending in the U.S. peaked in 2022 and is expected to decline thru 2027.

To put pre-pandemic TV advertising in perspective, TV ad spending in the US peaked between 2016 thru 2019. The best pre-pandemic year in the U.S. was 2018 with 72.4 bn TV ad revenue. In contrast, 2027 TV ad revenue is predicted to be about 56.0 bn USD.

TV’s bottom line is shrinking and engineering department budgets are feeling the result. Thank goodness, digital broadcast production gear costs much less than it did in the analog days. On the other hand, everyone wants to do more for less. The loop never ends.

Making Lemonade

Lockdowns, social distancing, Zoom, and clear plastic wrap-covered control panels propagated the industry because TV broadcasters did what they do best: Improvise and make it look like you planned it that way on TV.

Fortunately, the pandemic appears to be winding down and virtually all TV news stations have improved workflows to accommodate distancing of reporters, guests and crews on TV. Most stations have abandoned live shots from reporter’s homes and kitchens, but many stations continue to interview newsmakers who prefer to remain isolated by using consumer solutions like Zoom. Behind the scenes, many stations used the pandemic as an opportunity to experiment and learn what technology fits the station’s work and content flows and budgets best and what doesn’t.

Bonded cellular transport has been around for about 15 years, but the pandemic made it flourish. Its near-universal industry adoption kept many ENG vans and Satellite trucks parked during a time when many stations needed the most live field content possible for newscasts. Bonded cellular systems easily fulfill that need for portability, rapid deployment and signals from locations stations could never receive a regular microwave or satellite feed from.

Similarly, codecs and encoders continue to evolve beyond H.264 advanced video coding (AVC) and H.265 High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC). Several more efficient bandwidth reduction encoder and decoder systems beyond HEVC are currently being developed and could be unveiled at the 2024 NAB Show.

The FCC’s website reminds broadcasters that "stations are obligated to provide news, public affairs, and other programming that addresses important issues facing its community." This is done by maintaining a station’s brand by keeping regular programming on the air and reaching out to stay connected with viewers and the market. But adding another digit to local TV newscast ratings and revenues won’t singularly save the U.S. broadcast TV industry.

Right now, TV stations, groups, management, employees and consultants are determined to find more means to enhance profitable TV station revenue. The problem with watching TV is that it is the ultimate passive experience. Viewers don’t need to do more than change stations and control the volume with their remote controls. From the day Sony debuted the first interactive professional Betamax in 1977, interactive TV in many forms has been tried and marketed and none have lifted off the launchpad.

Stations, groups and networks are looking at streaming. Many looking into the Broadcast Internet for new revenue from completely different sources than TV sponsors. Others are exploring the potential of interactive TV. Some think AI may bring something new. As of the end of 2023, ATSC 3 isn’t creating much of a stir in the industry or among viewers because it looks so much like ATSC 1. In fact, lighthouse stations can’t broadcast every diginet station. In many cases, some diginets are spread across different stations, leaving viewers confused.

Stations and groups know their staff and crews are highly creative and are always open to good suggestions, no matter how crazy they sound. Imagine management’s initial response when someone at a meeting suggested shooting newscasts and live shots from reporter’s homes? What seemed crazy at the moment brought viewers and news talent closer together as everyone fought the pandemic. It was a great idea with unexpected benefits.

The industry needs another reality leap like from analog 480i SD on a bulky and heavy CRT to 1080p60 on a 60-inch flat screen that even the sleepiest TV viewer can’t ignore. The pixel count advantage of UHD isn't the answer without a huge screen or an uncomfortably close viewing distance. The recommended viewing distance for 4K is 1.5x screen height. Recommended distance for 1080P is 3x screen height. Beyond the 3x distance most people think 1080p60 with HDR looks better than 4K. I don't think 4K is the answer. No station ever charged more to air an HDTV spot than the same spot in SD. Sponsors pay for time.

Aging Facilities

Many TV facilities were built by radio station owners in the 1940s,'50s and '60s and most original buildings included radio studios. Asbestos was commonly used thru the 1980s by builders and construction companies for thermal and electrical insulation on water pipes and conduit, and for fireproofing. Asbestos is hazardous and now illegal in most of the world and asbestos abatement is serious, complicated, and expensive. Some stations are now deciding between significant building repairs and upgrades or removal and replacement. Over the years, the needs of stations have changed. Most radio station partners have moved out, and many TV stations operate out of remote hubs, reducing critical space usually necessary for local station people and gear.

Most original facilities were built and electronically connected by heavy coaxial cable with BNC connectors. Studio cameras were connected with thicker cables and special connectors as were audio snakes. Later, stations added parallel and serial remote-control cables to automate Master Control. The physical result was layers upon layers of coax and wires buried in troughs or run through overhead raceways. Not everyone could identify what cable connected what without tracing it. Cat 5 or Cat 6 cable and routers easily resolve that issue.

There was a time when TV station facility design was considered part hospital (wide halls with easy-open doors), part hospital Operating Room (a dust-free, positive pressure 2-inch quad VTR room), part workshop, part office building and part indoor and outdoor parking. Today, the basic concept and needs remain the same. However, facility wiring, and electronic design has changed significantly as IP networking replaces unique copper signal paths and A/V routing switchers.

One significant benefit of IP-based remote OB trucks is that they weigh less because the cables weigh less than coax. IP-based video facilities also need less cable and considerably less space to run IP cables.

ATSC 3

According to ATSC president Madeleine Noland, “2024 promises the continued expansion of ATSC 3.0 broadcasts in the U.S. and around the world, and opportunities for our members to reconnect, learn, and grow.” Noland also announced, “In 2023, we saw twelve new deployments of ATSC 3.0 now on-the-air in over 70 markets, reaching 70% of U.S. viewing audiences with five launches or additional deployments happening just in the month of December. Good start, but the ultimate marketing question looms, "What can I see for free on a NextGen TV that I can't see or stream for free right now?"

Interested TV viewers and early adaptors are also asking questions about ATSC 3.0 digital rights management (DRM). Will DRM impede the future ATSC 3? Stay tuned.

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