• Just when marketers thought the TV revolution had settled down into HD, 4K, and over-the-top (OTT), along comes another standard.

    Get ready for ATSC 3.0.

    ATSC is the Advanced Television Systems Committee, a nonprofit international organization that develops voluntary standards for antenna-based, over-the-air TV broadcasting. Its new ATSC 3.0—branded as next-gen TV 0151—will be embedded in at least 20 models released this year from LG, Samsung, and Sony.

    Launched in 1996 and now nearly a quarter-century old, 1.0 covered the conversion of broadcast TV from analog to digital HD. There is no ATSC 2.0; its incremental changes were included in 3.0.

    Version 3.0 represents a major upgrade in broadcast TV—one that could make broadcast more competitive with cable and streaming services, give new engagement opportunities for advertisers, and broaden the use of mobile devices to receive cable-like high-res channels.

    Impressive specs

    ATSC 3.0 will boost over-the-air TV broadcasts with 4K resolution, high-dynamic range (HDR), wide-color gamut (WCG), and a high frame rate that could reach 120 frames per second. The protocol can also support even higher resolutions, such as 8K TV and  3D versions of 4K. 

    While ATSC 3.0 is not backward compatible with 1.0, the first sets will also have 1.0 tuners/decoders. Cable operators, who commonly carry broadcast signals, are working on a way to pass 3.0 signals through their systems to 3.0-enabled TV sets.

    It also provides a major improvement in sound quality—including theater-quality Dolby Atmos, with up to 128 channels of sounds routed to a 5.1 or 7.1 home system. 

    But that’s only part of the potential new broadcast TV picture. Version 3.0 also makes use of the internet connection that virtually all new TV sets now have, enabling interactive overlays on programming or ads, addressable measurement, and ad targeting. 

    This capability, which is the first broadcast use of a net back channel, is one of the reasons that next-gen TV is being promoted as a “hybrid TV,” a combination of broadcast and internet-delivered TV.

    Of course, there are a few caveats.

    The caveats

    First of all, ATSC 3.0 is only available on sets or other devices with the specific 3.0 chipset, although you could get an external converter box that works with multiple devices. You don’t, however, need a new antenna, if you already have one.

    This means TV stations need to transmit a different signal, although, unlike the conversion to HD, this transition is voluntary. Stations that do broadcast 3.0 also must also offer 1.0 signals for at least five years after the switch. Because stations don’t get additional bandwidth, as they did for the HD conversion, transitioning involves swapping between stations in a market, where some stations pick up 1.0 broadcasts for others who then handle the 3.0 broadcasts for the group.

    Various major station groups—including Fox, NBC, Tegna, and Nexstar—have announced support for a 3.0 rollout, and up to 40 markets in the U.S.—covering about 70% of the population—are expected to have some 3.0 broadcasting presence this year. Major local broadcasters in South Korea have been broadcasting in the format since spring of 2017.

    Seven broadcasters over ten stations in the Phoenix, Arizona, market have launched what they call a “model market” to demonstrate the format’s viability, while still providing 1.0 channels. It is coordinated by the Pearl TV consortium, whose managing director is Anne Schelle. Across the U.S., nine markets currently have at least one ATSC 3.0 station each, she told RampUp.

    More channels

    One payback to stations is that 3.0 also opens up the possibility of more channels for each broadcaster, although some would be lower resolution than 4K. 

    Tim Hanlon, Head of Investment consultancy for the Vertere Group, noted that Boise, Idaho-based Edge Networks is launching an ATSC 3.0-based multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD). MVPDs like Sling TV or DirecTV now offer multiple channels without having a data transport infrastructure, such as a cable system or satellite. By the summer, Edge is expecting to offer 80+ over-the-air channels for less than $50/month.

    Hanlon noted that stations’ extra capacity could also be used for data transmission that could bring in non-advertising revenue, such as broadcasting stock updates or medical data.

    But the advertising pie could become bigger and a lot tastier if and when 3.0 does successfully establish itself.

    Interactive ads and programming

    A 3.0-enhanced TV, which combines a web environment with broadcast TV, could offer interactive engagement with ads that are more relevant to viewers’ interests, as well as possibly provide interactive engagement for programming. And broadcast TV could finally become a precisely measurable advertising medium, the way online is.

    Ad-skipping is a major issue for the TV industry, possibly its biggest challenge. In addition to cable and streaming channels that are ad-free, it is now common for viewers to fast-forward through ads on recorded shows. Even many on-demand shows allow fast-forwarding.

    One alternative to ad skipping is product placement inside shows’ stories, such as Netflix did with its hit series, “Stranger Things.” That 80s-based series, however, is a perfect and relatively rare example of TV programming where product placement enhances the period setting.

    Another alternative: make ads more useful, interesting, and personalized.

    This is an approach that online ads have tried, but the ongoing demise of third-party cookies is limiting that prospect. 

    Targeted ads

    ATSC 3.0, on the other hand, can offer ads with interactive overlays that are delivered and made interactive by the TV’s internet connection. A viewer seeing a TV ad for Walmart, for instance, might also see an overlay showing sales specific to the nearest store. A click on the overlay could bring up more details.

    Or a linear TV ad for an upcoming new TV series, delivered over the air, could include an overlay that lets viewers select and watch brief preview clips from the series, delivered via the net.

    This combination of broadcast and net lets local ad targeting become specific to a media market, Schelle said, or even to a household. 

    So, if viewers in your dwelling have clicked on ads for new cars, then new car ads and local sales could be seen more frequently—just as on a website. 

    Hanlon pointed out that TV ads intended specifically for southern Connecticut, which now must be broadcast to the entire New York metro area on one of the New York-based TV stations, could instead be broadcast only to an intended submarket or even specific households, since 3.0 enables zone advertising.

    Viewer consent

    The new ATSC also offers something that TV advertisers sorely lack: precise measurement, also via the internet connection. Hanlon described this as a potential “game-changer.”

    Schelle said this measurement—similar to today’s Automatic Content Recognition (ACR)—can track what households are watching and which interactive options in ads or programs they click on. 

    Although this measurement and other kinds of tracking and targeting can be aggregated and anonymized, it can also become individualized, meaning that notice and consent for data collection and use becomes a bigger issue than it has been in regular TVs. 

    Schelle indicated that opportunities to provide consent for data collection by ATSC 3.0 TVs still remains up to the TV manufacturer, which typically hides the consent choice in the dense language that accompanies initial setup. 

    HD/4K for free on mobile

    However, it’s difficult to see how this kind of blanket consent would meet the standards of, say, the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which requires more granular consent, or the expectations of the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), which mandates the ability for consumers to compel providers to delete or restrict their personal data. If privacy regulation continues its current course, a more granular consent framework will probably have to be added to ATSC 3.0.

    The new standard could also offer another major opportunity for advertisers and other marketers: free HD or 4K TV over-the-air to mobile devices. However, any back channel through the net—for interactivity, on-demand content, or measurement—would still consume data charges when the mobile device is outside Wi-Fi.

    Although it’s possible for ATSC 3.0 chips to be added to new smartphones, tablets, and cars, Schelle says the current manufacturing emphasis is on TV sets, and that mobile “is a carrier business.”

    But, with the addition of more over-the-air virtual MVPD operators, widespread use of ATSC 3.0 on mobile devices and vehicles could mean cable-like TV channels anywhere, without set-top boxes or a wire connection. Obviously, this could help to destabilize the cable TV industry.

    The revenge?

    The emerging depression is not exactly the ideal time for the rollout of a new, incompatible TV technology that requires the purchase of a new TV set or mobile device.

    While the less expensive converter box might offer 3.0 channels, the prices and ease of installation for such adapters are not yet known. 

    However, the ongoing cost of high-res TV channels would be less over-the-air than over cable, potentially making it a good deal if the economic catastrophe continues for more than a year or two.

    And, if 3.0 does catch on, Hanlon suggested that any depiction of its rebounding success could be entitled, “The Revenge of Broadcasting.” 

    Up to this point in that evolving tale, the plot had darkened for broadcasters. Cable TV’s retransmission fees were dropping because the number of cable subscribers was decreasing. OTT TV via the internet has been offering countless competing choices to any net-connected devices, overwhelming FCC-regulated broadcast programming. Advertisers have been worrying as TV viewers see fewer and fewer ads.

    But, now, the broadcasters are striking back.

    Like any good drama, the current pandemic has thrown a major plot-twist into the mix—but just wait till the next episode.

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