TV Groups Need To Get In The 3.0 Game
If Mark Aitken's intention was to get our attention, he has done that.
The Sinclair advanced technology exec told our reporter Phil Kurz this week that he is so discouraged by what's happening at ATSC in its work on a next-generation broadcasting standard — ATSC 3.0 — that he is putting together a rump group to come up with an alternative "broadcast-centric" system.
According to Aitken, consumer electronics manufacturers dominate the ATSC and they are fixated on developing a standard optimized for delivering ultra HD pictures to big-screen sets. That makes sense. They sell a lot of big screens.
But broadcasters cannot settle for any standard that doesn't also do an excellent job of reaching small screens on mobile devices, Aitken says. "For too long, the focus has been on the big screens in the living room. That is an important piece in America, but it may come as a surprise to some that Americans are consuming content outside the living room.”
I think Aitken is right about the problem, but wrong about the solution.
Implementing the next broadcast standard, whatever it is, will not be easy. It will be incompatible with all the existing sets and so will require another massive and complex transition plan that nobody really wants to think about right now. We all remember that last year leading up to the final analog-to-digital switch in 2009. That was quite a chore.
So it is imperative that broadcasters get this standard right and that it accommodates their future needs as far as the best minds in the industry can see.
And getting it right, I would agree with Aitken, means a standard that can generate a signal that can be received reliability on laptops, tablets and smartphone without dongles or external antennas of any kind. By reliability, I mean at least as well as I can receive audio and video on my smartphone, and I would hope the mobile broadcast service of the future would be a lot better.
Aitken is also probably correct is saying that the consumer electronics companies have undue influence in the workings of the ATSC. They are deeply involved on every level, from the ad hoc committees where the real work is done to specialists groups where the big decisions are made.
Where I think Aitken goes off the rails is in calling for the abandonment of ATSC and the development of a separate system. That seems like a gross overreaction.
What's needed is more involvement by broadcasters in ATSC. Like other standards bodies, its important decisions are made in small working groups by consensus. The more people your side has in the room, the more influence it will have.
If broadcasters want to insure that what emerges from ATSC is "broadcast-centric," they have to agree on just what it is they mean by "broadcast-centric" — is it mobile first as Aitken and I believe or something else — and then start showing up and making their voices heard.
One of the things that has perplexed this observer about broadcasting is its passive approach to the technology that undergirds the business today and will determine its place in the mediascape of the future or whether it will even have a place.
For at least the past quarter century, broadcasting has relied on equipment and software vendors and, yes, consumer electronics manufacturers, to think up and supply all the improvements in the medium. It's what I call R&D on the cheap.
The NAB Labs, ostensibly the place where broadcasting should be reinventing itself, does nothing of the sort. In fact, from what I can tell, it does nothing except some advocacy and educational work.
At this point, I don't expect broadcasters to start spending millions of dollars a year for a bona fide Broadcast Labs. I've given up on that idea. But what they could do is become more fully engaged in the ATSC process. Nothing is more fundamental to broadcasting than the standard.
ATSC has some involved broadcasters, but it needs more. Every top 15 station group should have at least one transmission expert actively working on ATSC 3.0. If they cannot hire one, they should find a consultant. That's the best way to insure that the standard that finally emerges in 2016 will jibe with their business strategy and give them a fighting chance.
Say what you will about Mark Aitken and Sinclair, at least they care enough to show up.