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From Evoca to STIRR to VUit, How Broadcasters Are Tapping into ATSC 3.0

(Image credit: ATSC)

The broadcast industry has been eagerly awaiting the rollout of ATSC 3.0, precisely because the next-gen technology standard empowers TV stations to do things TV stations aren’t known for doing. And finally, we’re seeing new companies and ventures delivering real-world applications that use ATSC 3.0 and other technologies in clever and possibly transformational ways. 

Startup company Evoca, for instance, has taken over the digital spectrum of two low-power stations in Boise, Idaho, to provide more than 70 over-the-air channels of high-resolution subscription programming. It’s a virtual MVPD. But instead of relying solely on the internet to delivery video, Evoca mostly uses the ATSC 3.0 over-the-air broadcast standard. 

Though Evoca has been broadcasting since last year, the service just launched an “early access” program for a limited number of Boise residents, with plans to expand to the entire city later in the year, said Todd Achilles, CEO and co-founder of parent company Edge Networks. 

“With any new tech, you’ve got to give it time to mature,” Achilles said. “Then you’ve got to evolve and iterate faster than everyone else.” 

The company plans to expand into other Mountain West markets in 2021, particularly small and mid-size communities similar to Boise, which is DMA No. 100. The two stations Evoca uses cover 80% - 85% of the Boise metropolitan area. 

“We’re looking at second- and third-tier markets,” Achilles said. “Primarily, they’re TV deserts now.” 

Evoca is actually a hybrid, using digital broadcast spectrum for high-demand, high-quality programming, while using broadband wired connections to deliver lower-quality or less-watched content. 

“We’re blending broadcast with broadband,” Achilles said. “We make a decision whether to send a show on 3.0 spectrum or over the internet in a box. It’s a function of what people are watching. The best live content gets distributed through live broadcast.”

Obvious candidates for the high-end treatment are big movies, popular network shows and live sports such as the NFL and Brigham Young football (the BYU Channel is part of Boise’s channel package, a natural given the region’s large Mormon population). 

That blended approach helps manage one of the big downsides of broadband; popular shows, at high quality, are expensive bandwidth hogs. It’s far more efficient and economical to broadcast that programming, and it’ll arrive in higher quality video and audio too, without drop-outs and other technical issues.

“Let’s say you’re delivering a three-hour baseball game,” Achilles said. “That’s 243,000 gigabytes of data. To deliver that in higher-quality broadcast is 5 gigabytes. And it doesn’t choke the system.” 

But Ecova is emphasizing the flexibility of video-on-demand too, which is where broadband shines. The approach has proven popular so far; Achilles said the company has been “hammered with signup requests” since announcing the early access program. 

A hybrid approach does mean that would-be customers need to get an internet connection if they don’t have one. That’s adding another role for Evoca.

“If people have no internet connection, there’s a path where we can plug that gap,” Achilles said. “What are the alternatives? We’re kind of going slowly into being the (internet service provider).”

The arrival of 5G “fixed” wireless mobile, which is also rolling out nationwide now, may become another way to get lower-bandwidth programming into customers’ households, Achilles said. In the meantime, Evoca’s base service costs $50 a month, and uses a puck-like streaming device in concert with a digital antenna to bring in the service’s channels, record programming and get it all on screen. 

Meanwhile, other broadcasters are using online streaming as both a new way to reach audiences interested in their local content and get ready for what ATSC 3.0 will unlike. 

Days after Evoca announced its early access program, the broadcast groups Meredith and Gray launched VUit, an ad-supported free streaming service featuring more than 200 of their respective stations. Customers will be able to stream all of Gray’s stations in 93 markets, and some in Meredith’s 17. 

The companies partnered with Syncbak Inc., which Gray partly owns, to launch the service, which is designed to extend the broadcasters’ audience reach and drive incremental ad revenue.

Unlike a more traditional MVPD arrangement, however, VUit pays no carriage fee to the stations, but gives them most of the ad revenue it generates, including from local advertisers who typically haven’t been able to tap streaming services effectively. 

“We’re aiming to be the Netflix of live, local and free,” Syncbak CEO Jack Perry told the Wall Street Journal

PLUS: ATSC 3.0: Small Cities, Big Opportunities

Nexstar, the biggest broadcast group, has some of its stations available for streaming on Hulu + Live TV and YouTube TV. 

Sinclair Broadcast Group, the second-biggest station group and a particularly active ATSC 3.0 backer, sits somewhere between Evoca’s approach and those of Nexstar, Gray and Meredith.  

Sinclair launched STIRR in early 2019, a half-step into ATSC 3.0 that now features 121 channels of ad-supported content of its own and that of dozens of partners. 

Unlike a typical national AVOD service such as Tubi or Pluto, however, STIRR also features live local programming from its stations in 77 markets. 

Unusually, that even includes in-market deals for live and “back-five” episodes of major syndicated shows running on its stations, said STIRR General Manager Adam Ware.

Live sports is a hot commodity, too. Sinclair’s Las Vegas station, for instance, signed a deal with the WNBA’s Aces franchise to carry 15 games, which also were available on a geo-fenced basis for Las Vegas-area STIRR users. 

“It’s all about local, maximizing the programming rights the station owns, preserving and respecting the rights, working cross platform, cross division across the company,” Ware said. “To the extent that is a warmup to (ATSC) 3.0, that’s a pretty good understanding of what STIRR is trying to do.”

When you sign onto STIRR, you pick a “home” market. That gives you access to that station’s local news, public affairs, sports, the Christmas parade, the Sunday morning public affairs show and whatever else a given Sinclair station is producing.  

STIRR is purposely positioned to embrace ATSC 3.0 delivery as the technology becomes broadly available, Ware said. 

“With all the promise of ATSC 3.0, there are various things you can do now,” Ware said. “You can test the ground for what might work. I think that’s really what STIRR is. Broadcasters are accused of putting the pipe out and pushing someone else’s content out there. STIRR represents taking the next step.” 

Ware said STiRR is providing “a path to OTT for those stations. How do those stations go OTT? ATSC 3.0 means they’re going OTT.” 

His goal, he said, is that when people in a community think of STIRR, they consider it the streaming service for their local station, rather than some faraway national or international service based in Hollywood or Silicon Valley. 

“ATSC 3.0 is ‘inherently local,” Ware said, which means broadcasters, with their long-time relationships in a given community, are well positioned to decide what programming will appeal there. It’s something the national and international streaming services aren’t set up to do for any given community, though he said those services are asking him about how to get more local. 

“They’re all doing the same thing, they’re all national or international. None of them are local,” Ware said. “They were all missing local news brands. And a local brand isn’t just the city name, it’s the anchors.”