An In-Depth Conversation on ATSC 3.0 with President of ATSC, Madeleine Noland

By Marty Sacks on Jun 11, 2021 9:01:46 AM

The ATSC 3.0 rollout is here, and with this new standard comes much to be learned and explored. Marty Sacks, EVP of sales, support and marketing at Telos Alliance, recently got the privilege of sitting down with president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, Madeleine Noland, to speak about the new standard, as well as all of the opportunities, content capabilities, and challenges  that come along with it.

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Welcome, Madeleine. We're so glad to have you here with us today. Let's start by talking about the ATSC 3.0 rollout. How's it going?

I am very, very happy with the rollout so far in the U.S. I know the broadcasters had hoped to launch all 62 markets that they had announced by the end of last year, but the pandemic certainly slowed things down. Interestingly, it slowed down the deployment, but not the enthusiasm. So what we have found is that we have roughly one third of that done in 2020. About 20 markets are now on the air, reaching roughly 20% of the population here in the U S. And the expectation is that we're probably going to complete most of the rest of the 62 markets over the course of 2021. So we would expect to see at least another 20 markets and perhaps more this year. And ideally by Q1 of 2022, we will have all 62 markets lit up. When that happens, we will be reaching about 75% of the population of the U.S. So that's very exciting. It's excellent progress, especially when the pandemic slowed everything down so much.

What are the barriers to launch and how can broadcasters speed things up?

I think the broadcasters are going as quickly as they possibly can, but there are three different facets to this launch. There is the facet of when are the broadcasters going to launch and where. There's the facet of how many television sets and receivers are out there and what is the uptick of those? And then there is what are the services that the broadcasters are actually putting on the air. So when you look at those, that sort of three-legged stool, I think that in terms of getting services on the air, the broadcasters are going as fast as they absolutely can. And I have to say hats off to them for all the hard work that they've done in order to get that done.

So tell us about the device marketplace then, how is that going?

In terms of the device marketplace. I'm also very pleased with what Sony, Samsung, and LG have done. They did launch the 20 in 2020, announced at the CES last year. That was 20 different models carrying the NEXTGEN TV capability in the year 2020. And despite the pandemic, they not only completed that, but they exceeded it. I think they were up to around two dozen altogether. And there are yet more models that were announced at CES 2021. So we're probably approaching 30 or three dozen television models that have the NEXTGEN TV capability in them. And these are also not just the high-end models. Oftentimes when a new technology rolls out, it starts with the very, very high end of the product scale. And we're happy that NEXTGEN TV has really started from the high end and matriculates into the sub $1,000 range for television sets, which I guess you could call the midrange.

According to the CTA's research, about 300,000 of these shipped in 2020. And the expectation is that those numbers are going to grow dramatically over the next two to three years, potentially eclipsing 24 million NEXTGEN TV sets out in the marketplace by 2024. And that's a great trajectory. But another thing that the CTA research mentioned was that does not take into account how quickly the technology might matriculate into the lower end of the spectrum in terms of the models. If the technology matriculates into the less complex models sooner, rather than later, then those numbers would probably be even higher, even faster. So it's still to be determined what happens in terms of NEXTGEN TV being in the entire range of products, but we're pretty excited about that. And not only with televisions coming out, but we also now have some Gateway boxes, set-top box type devices, like the BitRouter ZapperBox, and SiliconDust's HDHomeRun 4k Connect, both of which are available on the market. And I've seen some white-label boxes as well, which are pretty exciting. So that's the second leg of the stool. And I have to say, that's going pretty well also.



 

And the broadcasters? What are they going to put out on their 3.0 signals?

So ATSC 3.0 has a wide variety of features, which ones are going to come out of the gate first and how soon are they going to come out of the gate? What we've heard from broadcasters is that they definitely want to move from a 720p and 1080i, up to full HD, which would be 1080p. And they want to start using HDR and wide color gamut as quickly as possible. And that's going to be sort of the big video upgrade that we can do while we have a little bit of bandwidth constraint due to simulcasting.

What about on the audio side?

I think what they're seeing is this Voice Plus as being some of the low-hanging fruit, which tests very, very well with consumers. And this is the ability to turn the dialogue up relative to the music and effects. What they learned in their consumer research was that a lot of consumers watch TV with the captions on, even if they don't consider themselves as having hearing impairment. They watch it because they have trouble discerning the dialogue from the rest of the music and effects that are going on in the soundtrack. So Voice Plus is something that allows them to adjust that on their own, very personalizable. And we expect that is probably going to be a very popular feature. At least the research suggests that it will be.

Outside of Audio and Video, what are broadcasters excited about with ATSC 3.0?

Interactivity, which we're also hoping to see take off in 2021, at least as a starting point. Widgets that go along with the local news programming, for example, being able to jump to weather or start the news over again. We're hoping to see those types of things come online in 2021. So we're hoping that the early adopters are going to have a good experience and that they're going to see the new ATSC 3.0 programming on their new ATSC 3.0 television sets, and they're going to be quite pleased with what they see out of the gate, even knowing that it's going to get better and better over time. So we're pretty excited about it. And what's going to make it go faster? Well, we're happy that the chip vendors are coming out with more and more chips. So Mediatek's getting into game, and SiTune's, getting in the game, and that may inspire additional manufacturers to get in the game. That could increase the distribution quickly.

How does the creative community play a role in the adoption of ATSC 3.0?

The creative community could make the adoption go even faster. If the creative community can embrace these new features and start making HDR great on television and start using the new audio capabilities, start thinking about what kind of interactivity consumers are really going to like, then you're going to see consumers, the early adopters,  tell their friends, and they're going to tell the early adopter press, and they're going to say, "Hey, this stuff is great. We've got to do it. You should go get yours. And by the way, we're going to watch the game at my house next time, because it looks so much better." So that's my hope. And I think that the creative community has a big influence on how rapidly this technology is adopted.

What is the feedback coming from the test markets? Because I know Phoenix has been going for a while now. And also the feedback from the recently adopted 20 markets or so that have turned on thus far?

In terms of consumer feedback, it's a little bit too early to tell. I don't think that we have enough consumers in the marketplace with devices that we can sort of do a real statistical sample. I did notice, I was quite excited by the marketing campaign that took place around the holidays last year, right around the 2020 Christmas holiday season. I think the broadcaster spent around $15 million on a major campaign, which hit cities that ATSC 3.0 was available in. And I think the broadcasters are doing some follow-up on that research to find out how effective it was, how many people remember the brand name, how many people understand what it means, how many people were inspired by it. So we're going to get some feedback on that level at some point. In terms of using the technology, the broadcasters, I think, are finding that it's getting easier and easier to launch stations, particularly from a technical point of view.

I know that the channel-sharing agreements are more of a legal question and a business arrangement question, and sometimes those can be challenging to get arranged. But the other good part about it is that there is a template out there now. The template of how to launch a station from a technical point of view, the template of how to put these agreements together. And it's a matter of sort of everybody getting at the table and ideally coming to some kind of conclusion that's satisfactory across the board, in order to launch the market. So from the field, we do occasionally get people saying, "Hey, this part of the standard wasn't quite clear. And can you please have a look at that?" And we're addressing those as they come in. Given the size and scope of the system, I'm pretty pleased with how well things are going in that respect.

From the field, I'd say it's a technical success. And in terms of its commercial success as a television platform from the consumer's point of view, I think it's a bit too early to say. I certainly hope that it's going to be great. And I hope that those that are experiencing it now are having a great experience. 2021 is going to be a pretty important year.

 

Can you talk specifically about the impact of ATSC 3 on the creative community? What's in it for the content creator?

Well, we hope that the creative toolbox is going to be a lot of fun. Like when you were six years old and you got a brand new box of 64 color Crayolas. Here you have all of the tools in the toolbox that can make content really come to life, including the high frame rate and the wide color gamut and the HDR, as well as going up to 4k spatial resolution—that's on the video side, of course. On the audio side, I would say the broadcasters are thinking about 7.1.4 immersive 3D experiences. Couple that with what's happening in terms of the device marketplace with soundbars and in TV speakers getting better and better. There are so many opportunities for making that home television viewing experience come alive in ways that it hadn't before.

The other thing is interactivity, which I hope the creative community gets excited about. We already have the capability to do things based on web technologies. So if you have parts of your organization that are already busy doing web applications, perhaps for your streaming services or for your webpages, that community already has the tools in the toolbox to do interactivity on ATSC 3.0. So in other words, it's based on HTML-5 and JavaScript and CSS. Yes, there are some additional APIs that are television-specific, but the part of the system is a basic web browser technology system. So looking at the audio side of things, I'd love to see the immersive audio pieces coming out. I think that could be really exciting. I have heard the headphones with immersive audio. I can't believe how well that works. And if we get some of that going and we can talk to the consumers about it, I think people will be very excited.

And in addition to the immersive audio, as I mentioned, there's the Voice Plus, which is kind of a basic level of personalization. But the other side of audio is the ability to deliver multiple audio tracks that go with your content. And that may mean additional languages. It may mean video descriptive services in the main and perhaps additional languages for the visually impaired. It may mean additional commentary. So you can have a director's commentary audio track going separately from the main audio track. There are a lot of opportunities on the audio side for personalization as well as for the immersive experience. So my hope is that the creative community is going to embrace this. Because as much as the engineers in ATSC like to put together demos and proof of concepts and prototypes, we are not the creative people that really know what consumers like. So we're very much looking forward to the creative community, sort of opening up this toolbox and putting everything to work.

So we're very much looking forward to the creative community, sort of opening up this toolbox and putting everything to work.

What is ATSC's interaction been with the creative community in terms of helping to tell that story and to encourage the adoption?

Within ATSC, our members really span the gamut. Pretty much all of the stakeholders in the ecosystem have a seat at the table at ATSC. And so all of the major networks are represented. The content and technology providers are represented. So our hope is that the features that are available are clear to all of the major content holders. We value our strong relationship with SMPTE and the rest as a way of reaching the content creation community. And it's not just the big Hollywood stuff, but it's also the local newsrooms. What are they going to do? Are they going to add some widgets and interactivity to their news, are they going to do some stuff in HDR? dynamic range. Outreach to the content community is a very high priority, and we're very happy to try to help people understand what the opportunities are.

Madeleine, talk about revenue and ATSC 3. What's the impact? What's the upside? What does that look like for the various stakeholders?

So the revenue picture is obviously a little bit on the speculative side because it's a new technology. That said, the idea behind personalization, which can be dynamic advertising, dynamic ad insertions, or targeted ads, if you want to call it that. That is a pretty well-known commodity because targeted advertising takes place on over-the-top all the time, and it also takes place in the cable platform. And so it's a fairly well-documented business case. There are other opportunities in addition to that, there are non-television services that might provide opportunities. And also with the better reception, we might also have additional audience. 

But really the other piece with ATSC 3.0 is its capacity. With the advanced video codec, advanced audio codec, and better physical layer, you can do in ATSC 3.0 with about 10% of your bandwidth, which currently takes around 40% of your bandwidth to do. So let's say that you're your television station and you're using roughly half of your signal to deliver a really nice HD experience. You might be able to do that with significantly less portion of your bandwidth, which opens it up for a lot of different opportunities. So the revenue opportunities, I think, are going to come down to dynamic advertising, other uses of spectrum, and broadened audiences.

What one thing do you think is most misunderstood about ATSC 3?

Some people think you need an internet connection in order to watch ATSC 3.0, but you don't. If you have an internet connection, you might get some additional services and you can have an enhanced experience, but ATSC 3.0 at its heart is an over-the-air broadcast experience, over-the-air free TV, so to speak. So we hope that everybody understands that the system works essentially as ATSC 1.0 does. All of the services that you have come to know and love over ATSC 1.0 are possible on 3.0, with or without an internet connection, but even better than before. And internet connection certainly makes a big difference in terms of what else you can get, but you don't have to have it.

Last question. What is the part of your work that has most surprised you?

I've been most surprised by the way this industry has coped with COVID. COVID was an opportunity, and I'll say this carefully, it was an opportunity for those that were thinking about adopting NEXTGEN TV to put the brakes on. To say, "Wait a minute, we're not really sure. Is this what we want to do?" It was a great excuse to set the whole thing aside for a long time, for years, forever. And they just said, "We're doing it. We're doing it anyway. We're going to find a way. We're going to get it done. We're going to move this ball forward." And I have been maybe surprised is the wrong word, but absolutely impressed to my core with how well people have coped with COVID and how much progress they've been able to make, and how much commitment they're showing to this technology, in order to get as far as we've gotten despite the COVID pandemic. I'm super pleased with that. I would say that impressed is probably a better word than surprised though because if there's anybody who's resilient, it's this community, that's for sure.

Topics: ATSC 3.0

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