FCC makes a move toward ATSC 3.0

Here come the commenters. In a decision released yesterday, the FCC decided to allow ATSC 3.0 broadcasts so long as the content is exactly the same as regular broadcast content. This is a move designed to move the “Next Generation TV Standard” ahead in a way that doesn’t require lengthy approvals.

And trust me, I’ve heard from a lot of you saying “see, you were wrong, 4K TV is just around the corner.” Yeah, you believe that if you want.

There’s a lot to unpack here. ATSC 3.0 is, in case you’re coming late to the party, the TV standard that will allow 4K content, on-demand programs, and other internet-connected services over regular TV channels. From a technical point of view, it’s a lot better than the ATSC 1.0 standard that brings us over-the-air TV. Of course it is; we’ve had 20 years to tinker with things, and here in the US we got to watch the Europeans roll out the DVB-T2 standard which is already much better than what we get.

There’s just a few things you should know before you start jumping for joy.

Still no 4K content, folks
This is the big one so let’s start there. Sure, maybe some TV shows are being shot in 4K now, it wouldn’t surprise me a bit. But there’s quite a bit more to broadcasting in 4K than just producing 4K content. It has to be distributed and there really isn’t a model for that yet. None of the broadcast networks have even talked about 4K delivery, and in fact 4K isn’t even the part of the standard that broadcasters care about. (I’ll explain below, keep reading)

Still no ATSC 3.0 televisions or converter boxes.
When these next-gen broadcasts start, you’ll need a new TV or some sort of converter box. And because the FCC is doing an end run around Congress here, there isn’t likely to be any subsidy or coupon program for you this time around. It’s going to be up to you to buy all new everything, at full price. Better enjoy that new $599 4K TV because I’m guessing just the new tuner chip’s going to add at least $200 to it for a little while.

No clear path here for the nation’s top markets.
Because the FCC is taking away channels 36-51 (they already took away from 52-83) many large markets don’t have enough channel space for there to be two channels for every program source. And let me be clear, that’s a big problem. In order to broadcast an ATSC 3.0 signal, you have to broadcast an ATSC 1.0 signal with exactly the same stuff on another channel. Except in markets like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and others, there just isn’t enough channel space for every broadcaster to do that. So the big boys will start doing it, the network affiliates, and the smaller, public-interest stations won’t. What happens when or if there’s a move to 100% ATSC 3.0? They’ll probably go out of business. Is that really a good thing?

What it’s really about? Addressable advertising.
This isn’t about 4K. Obviously it isn’t, because as I said there isn’t any. This is about addressable advertising. Everyone else has it and broadcasters want it. Addressable advertising means that they can send you commercials that are targeted to you, and charge more money for it. Broadcasters think that you don’t mind addressable advertising, since you’re already getting it on Facebook, all over the internet, and even through your pay-TV provider. Over-the-air TV is one of the few technologies left that doesn’t have addressable advertising, and the biggest TV station owners in the country think that if they get addressable advertising, it will save them from oblivion. Because everyone actually watches the ads, right?

This isn’t a pro-broadcasting move, it’s an anti-streaming move
Here’s the doomsday scenario that broadcasters fear: losing their network affiliations because the network, simply, goes away. What if CBS went streaming-only? They could do it, for sure. Just put up a national feed with no local coverage at all. The only thing that’s stopping them is the contracts they have with local station owners. This is seriously terrifying to station owners who haven’t given their local markets anything to care about, who’ve stripped their news and local interest departments and who rely on network programs for ad dollars. Local broadcasters see ATSC 3.0 as a way to keep you watching OTA television instead of streaming your favorite shows. Only, that doesn’t actually make sense. You’re not going to stop streaming just because there’s an ATSC 3.0 feed on your TV. You’re going to stream just as much, right?

And, let me be perfectly clear about this…
It’s very possible that this is all a power grab by Sinclair. Sinclair is on its way to becoming the largest owner of local stations in the country, and that should worry you.

Sinclair Broadcast Group will soon own and control 233 local channels throughout the country. The FCC is actively moving all the roadblocks out of the way for them. There was a time when the biggest station owners in the country owned fewer than 20 stations, and now Sinclair will have a voice that reaches almost the entire country. On the face of that, it’s not too scary, since there are plenty of other voices, but the accusations are mounting up.

This isn’t about whether or not you voted red or blue. Sinclair has already been accused of favoring one candidate in the 2016 election, and considering the slim vote margins, it’s possible their influence swayed that election toward their candidate. Is that what you want out of a TV station that is licensed to operate using public airwaves, based on the idea that they’re serving the public?

It’s not just me. The government’s committee on oversight and reform is investigating FCC Chair Ajit Pai for colluding with Sinclair and introducing changes and rules that favor Sinclair specifically. I believe in innocent-until-proven-guilty so I won’t accuse Mr. Pai of anything. I’m just saying that if it’s true that a very large media conglomerate is getting favorable treatment from the government because they aided in electing the President, that’s a huge huge problem no matter who was elected.

I’m not saying this is the first time people have gotten favors for doing favors. I’m saying that successfully swaying an election and then being treated better than everyone else is wrong. I’m not saying that’s what happened, but it’s possible and it would explain the way we’re actually going about doing ATSC 3.0.

My own take is…
Honestly my feelings haven’t changed. It took a transition period of about thirteen years between the time that digital was conditionally approved and the time that the transition was complete. It took hundreds of millions of dollars of government money and everyone had to buy a new TV. Keep in mind that even in 2009 when the transition finished, practically no one streamed TV over the internet. Most people didn’t even have DVRs. Live TV was still king of the hill.

In the last ten years, millions of folks have cut the cord, but they haven’t done it to get better quality — they’ve done it to save money. I don’t think that today’s cord-cutters, today’s antenna enthusiasts, are all about buying another TV just to get 4K. Eventually they will, but that means this could be an even slower transition than last time and let that sink in for a minute… it could be 2035 or later before all TV goes 4K, at this rate.

I’m saying that this is a step, but just as I’ve been saying for the last five years, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to get this massive amount of 4K next week. Ask me again in five more years and I’ll probably still have the same answer.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 9,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.