Defibrillating a dead horse


Before we start, let me explain that ATSC 1.0 is the HDTV standard, and defines what you get from HDTV stations over the air and cable. It dates from the last millennium. Resolution currently maxes out at 1080i, which fails to take advantage even the lowest-end HDTVs sold today, which are 1080p (better than 1080i).

Your new 4K TV or computer screen has 4x the resolution and “upscales” the ATSC picture it gets over the air or from cable. But actual 4k video looks better. The main sources for that are the on-demand subscription streaming services, currently led by Netflix. All the sources of video “content” (Disney, Paramount, the TV networks) are headed into the same business, which together are called OTT, for Over The Top.

In other words, broadcast TV is to 4K streaming what AM radio is to FM. (Or what both are to audio streaming and podcasting.)

This is why our new FCC chairman is stepping up for broadcasters. In FCC’s Pai Proposes ATSC 3.0 Rollout, John Eggerton (@eggerton) of B&C (Broadcasting & Cable) begins,

New FCC chairman Ajit Pai signaled Thursday that he wants broadcasters to be able to start working on tomorrow’s TV today.

Pai, who has only been in the job since Jan. 20, wasted no time prioritizing that goal. He has already circulated a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking to the other commissioners that would allow TV stations to start rolling out the ATSC 3.0 advanced TV transmission standard on a voluntary basis. He hopes to issue final authorization for the new standard by the end of the year, he said in an op ed in B&C explaining the importance of the initiative.

“Next Gen TV matters because it will let broadcasters offer much better services in a variety of ways,” Pai wrote. “Picture quality will improve with 4K transmissions. Accurate sound localization and customizable sound mixes will produce an immersive audio experience. Broadcasters will be able to provide advanced emergency alerts with more information, more tailored to a viewer’s particular location. Enhanced personalization and interactivity will enable better audience measurement, which in turn will make for higher-quality advertising—ads relevant to you and that you actually might want to see. Perhaps most significantly, consumers will easily be able to watch over-the-air programming on mobile devices.”

Three questions here.

  1. Re: personalization, will broadcasters and advertisers agree to our terms rather than vice versa? Term #1: #NoStalking. So far, I doubt it. (Not that the streamers are ready either, but they’re more likely to listen.)
  2. How does this square with the Incentive Auction, which—if it succeeds—will make over-the-air (OTA) TV little more than a requirement for “must-carry” on cable?
  3. What will this do for (or against) cable and satellite TV, which is having a helluva time wedging too many channels into its available capacities already, and do it by compressing the crap out of everything, filling the screen with artifacts (those sections of skin or ball fields that look plaid or pixelated)?

Personally, I think both over the air and cable TV are dead horses walking, and ATSC 3.0 won’t save them. We’ll still have cable, but will use it mostly to watch and interact with streams, many of which will come from producers and distributors that were Net-native in the first place.

But I could be wrong about any or all of this. Either way (or however), tell me how.

[Update on 9 April 2022…] All the antennas flanking the art deco face of the Empire State Building are now removed. So are the T-shaped antennas above and below the 102nd floor observation level, to make room for taller windows. The “rototiller” FM antenna is gone, along with some of the antennas above it. Some of those have been replaced. The long-abandoned channel 4 and 5 “batwing” antenna at the very top remains, serving by default a decorative purpose. Meanwhile a fence of taller buildings have gone up along 57th Street to the north between Broadway and Park Avenue, no doubt affecting signal from the Empire State Building to some degree. But caring about that is on the decline, as listening and viewing continues drifting from live broadcasts to streams and podcasts accessed on demand, over the Net rather than over the air.



2 responses to “Defibrillating a dead horse”

  1. In retrospect we shouldn’t even have had over-the-air HD because those who cared enough about TV to appreciate HD already had cable or satellite and, as you said, the spectrum is much more valuable for other uses. ATSC is probably useful as an industry standard… as long as you don’t broadcast it over the air.

    1080i is also an interesting story, since it was more or less designed for CRT HDTVs… which basically never came to market. This is what we got for finalizing a standard in ~1997 for equipment that didn’t become affordable until ~2006. Imagine setting a standard today for equipment of 2025!

    IIRC in Germany they packed multiple digital SD stations into each 6 MHz channel, freeing up tons of spectrum.

    1. Thanks Wes. Well put. And some helpful history and facts in there as well.

      One argument I’ve heard for keeping over the air TV and radio is the need to serve rural areas. Yet we have satellite radio (albeit a monopoly of one company with no competitors) and TV (with just two competitors, but that beats having only one). We might lose the charm of a WNAX a KFYR, a WBAP, each of which cover (see those links) enormous stretches of the biggest flat states in the country (the first two with just 5000 watts each—only 1/10 the maximum allowed). But the best those stations have to offer is also available by data over cell systems, podcasts and other workarounds.

      My mother and her immigrant Swedish family grew up in Napoleon, North Dakota (motto: “It’s not the end of the world, but you can see it from there”), listening to WNAX and KFYR by day and the big “clear channel” stations from Chicago (WMAQ, WGN, WLS, WBBM) at night when AM signals bounce off the sky. Those were their connections to the bigger and biggest outside worlds, far beyond the driving range of their Ford Model A.

      In North Carolina, where I lived for most of the stretch between ’65 and ’85, the giants were on FM, radiating 100,000 watts from towers up to 2000 feet tall. By the end of that time, those stations dominated the ratings. Still do. But listening is now dominated by streaming services such as Spotify and Pandora, plus SiriusXM “stations” for dozens of musical tastes long since abandoned by terrestrial radio, with a fraction of the advertising, or none at all.

      So we’re in the Napoleon, ND of broadcasting now. It’s not the end of that world, but you can see it from here.

      Bonus link: a coverage map for CBK in Regina, Saskatchewan: the biggest in all of North America. That’s what 50,000 watts at the bottom end of the AM dial (540) on the most conductive ground on Earth will do for ya. CBC has been dumping its AM stations, but I do hope they keep this one.

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