Do you dream of silky-smooth 4K over-the-air television, delivered in the highest possible quality, for free? What about on-demand content that ties to the show you’re watching, without cable or satellite? It’s possible, sure. The technology is there. But will it ever happen?
Getting caught up with ATSC 3.0
Every couple of months I try to catch you up with the latest about ATSC 3.0, the next-generation TV standard that antenna hobbyists are clamoring for. Inevitably, I end up saying something depressing about it. Don’t believe me? Check out previous articles. You can see I’m not incredibly optimistic about it. For this article, though, I’m going to skip all that and go to the root of why things are being held up, right now.
It’s politics. (Isn’t it always?)
OK folks, this isn’t a political blog and it’s not ever going to be. But sometimes I have to state some facts. I try to be as straightforward as I can. I try to place blame or responsibility equally. I do what I can to make sure some of the toxic stuff in our culture doesn’t creep up into our discussions.
The reason that nothing new is happening with ATSC 3.0 boils down to the FCC. At the top level, the FCC generally has five commissioners. Two are always Republicans. Two are always Democrats. The fifth tends to be the same party as the President. Why? Because as a part of the Executive Branch, the FCC chair reports to the President.
Not surprisingly, and very much in keeping with the precedent of his forebears, Chair Ajit Pai resigned as chair in January 2021. Mr. Pai was made chair as part of a Republican administration and he is a Republican. In his place, Jessica Rosenworcel was made acting chair.
And there it stood, for nine months. Ms. Rosenworcel hasn’t been confirmed as permanent chair as I write this, although she has been nominated. So as it sits right now, there are two Democrats and two Republicans on the FCC. But, not counting the chair there’s only one Democrat.
So this is what would have to happen
In a normal scenario, a Democrat would be appointed to the FCC to fill the empty seat of commissioner. Ms. Rosenworcel would be confirmed as chair. This should be a no-brainer, but so far it’s, well, a brainer.
Candidates for federal office face intense scrutiny. It would be another circus, at a time when we certainly don’t need another one. And, it will further paralyze the FCC until it got resolved. At least they’re doing something now, even though they aren’t working on the next generation TV standard.
And even when that happens…
…there’s a very political side to ATSC 3.0. There really shouldn’t be, since it’s a win-win. People will like the quality. They’ll buy new TVs. Broadcasters will get better ratings for their broadcasts. And, of course, Solid Signal will sell more antennas. That’s all good stuff.
But, it’s tied up in politics because of one organization: Sinclair Broadcast Group. They’re the biggest force in TV that you’ve never heard of. As I write this, they own 193 TV stations which are seen by 40% of the population. That puts them far far ahead of most of the companies you’ve heard of. They’re the second-largest owner of TV stations.
And there are three things you need to know, three facts that are not in dispute. The first is that Sinclair Broadcast Group was alleged to have asked their stations to air editorial content disguised as news, all of it favorable to the 45th President. The second is that the FCC didn’t take action to investigate this. This may have been because former chair Ajit Pai had longstanding relationships with people at Sinclair. The third is that Sinclair has been the major driving force in trying to get ATSC 3.0 moving.
This all adds up to…
…unfortunately, that ATSC 3.0 has a bit of an association with the 45th President and the way he led the country. For one house of Congress, that’s a problem. Again, this isn’t a political blog, I’m just stating the facts.
So here’s the bottom line. It’s not likely that things at the FCC will change real soon. It’s not likely that ATSC 3.0 will grow out of the test phase until things at the FCC change. And when we really are ready to get out of the test phase, it’s still going to require an act of Congress to go there.
As a broadcaster once said, one who never saw high definition let alone 4K, and that’s the way it is.