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HPA 2017: ATSC 3.0 Update

INDIAN WELLS, CALIF.—Did you hear the one about a bunch of broadcasters walking into a golf resort full of Hollywood production types?

“If you bring it,” they said, referring to content, “We will come. With ATSC 3.0.”

The preceding anecdote was based on the true story of this week’s ATSC seminar at the Hollywood Post Alliance Retreat, held annually in Coachella Valley. ATSC 3.0, colloquially known as the “next-generation” broadcast transmission standard, is rounding the final corner of development and could be completed as soon as the second quarter of this year, according to Madeleine Noland of LG. Noland, whose work on 3.0 earned her the Bernard J. Lechner Award, highest accolade of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, said the standard is 80 to 85 percent complete. The seminar came just four days before the Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on voluntary deployment of the standard at the Feb. 23 open meeting. (See the component standards comprising ATSC 3.0 in the pop-out sidebar below.)

Noland opened the Monday afternoon seminar with a litany of characteristics—Ultra HD support, name your frame rate up to 120 fps, high dynamic range, wide color gamut, object audio, personalization and scalabilitya la one person gets 24 Mbps or a million. It makes no difference. ATSC 3.0, she and several panelists emphasized, redefines broadcasting the way jet propulsion redefined travel.

“Today’s system is designed with certain planning factors,” said Winston Caldwell, vice president of spectrum engineering in the Fox Networks Advanced Engineering Group. “The expectation was that people put Yagis on their rooftops, and the network’s designed to hit that antenna. Now, it doesn’t have to be like that. You can simply configure the system to deploy that network and give people an experience unlike they’ve had before with broadcast television. Think about the reliability of the cellular network. I tend to get frustrated with that. This is megawatts of power. The network can be configured to give you something no one has given you before.”

3.0’s capabilities leapfrog previous methodologies in that it supports interactivity versus push transmission only, but perhaps more radically, ATSC 3.0 combines broadcasting and broadband. Among other implications, that means channel surfers can move between over-the-air and over-the-top platforms like Netflix without jumping through a bunch of interface hoops.

That type of functionality—as well as ATSC 3.0 itself—requires a new generation of receivers, since the standard is not backward compatible with the one currently feeding TVs and cable headends across the country. This presents the old chicken-and-egg dilemma that HDTV had to get over, which is; what comes first, the content or the receivers? After HDTV finally drove a massive wave of new TV sales, a similar expectation for 3DTV hit the ground like a bag of wet cement.

TV manufacturers are taking a different approach with 3.0, which also supports mobile reception. LG, for example, introduced a gateway device at last year’s NAB Show that decodes ATSC 3.0 signals and redistributes them via Wi-Fi through an app. LG also introduced its first ATSC 3.0 4KTV at CES earlier this year in preparation for the deployment of 3.0 in South Korea this year. (South Korea officially adopted ATSC 3.0 last July, according to the Yonhap News agency.)

Noland and Caldwell were joined by Dave Siegler of Cox Media Group, Nandhu Nandhakumar of LG and Steve Koenig of the Consumer Technology Association for the first panel of the day on ATSC 3.0 distribution and display.

Siegler said Cox is “really interested in better pictures, immersive audio, dynamic ad insertion and advanced emergency alerting.”

Nandhakumar said LG is focused on “important consumer-facing features,” such as 3.0’s ability to reach further into buildings and support mobile reception. With regard to creating consumer awareness, his response was simple: side-by-side demos with 1.0 transmissions.

Koenig noted that “TV is something very different today… [it ’s] diffusion of content engagement across screens.” TV viewing on what old-timers call “TV” is decreasing, he said, from 61 percent in 2011 to 51 percent today.

Caldwell took an audience question on single frequency networks and whether or not broadcasters would be willing to invest in multiple towers the way cellular service providers have. Single frequency networks, or “SFNs,” comprise multiple transmitter sites simultaneously slinging a signal over a single frequency. SFNs allow for greater signal saturation in a coverage area.

“When you put in another tower site, you expand the [bit] pipe,” Caldwell said. “It’s a real key to the efficiency of the system.”

“With regard to cost, we see the key to that just cooperation, as we move into the future, hopefully the broadcast industry can cooperate more. A single tower can host several broadcasters at once a key way to offset costs... with regard to SFNs, we’re talking about four towers, maybe 10, not hundreds of towers,” he said.

Mark Corl of Triveni Digital led a second panel on interactivity featuring Guy Hadland of UniSoft Corp. Joe Winograd of Verance Azita Manson of OpenZnet and Pete Van Peenen of Pearl TV.

Hadland described how Unisoft provided data delivery and interactive applications for the OCAP cable standard, which is still in use in 14 million Charter homes. He said Unisoft now has a working data delivery system for ATSC 3.0.

Manson, whose company led an ATSC 3.0 app authoring project for the National Association of Broadcasters, said some new apps will appear at the upcoming 2017 NAB Show, including one for interactive advertising opt-in.

Hadland noted that, “Comcast Spotlight has been selling enhanced interactive ads for about three years. It’s one of the first things broadcasters can do.”

Van Peenen noted that the opt-in structure isn’t part of the 3.0 standard, “but from Pearl’s perspective, it would be opt-in,” to keep from peeving viewers, “but we don’t want people to have to opt in every time they change the channel.”

Winograd talked about HbbTV as an object lesson. HbbTV is a hybrid broadcast-broadband service in Europe. He said by “layering on top of OTA services an entry point into OTT, the broadcaster doesn’t lose a viewer when they change channels.”

He gave some examples of widely deployed HbbTV features, including real-time, customized content such as live, in-play soccer league stats, or viewer participation events. An addressable advertising feature “has gained a lot of traction in Germany,” he said, where 320 million “switch-in” ads per month are to delivered 26 million viewers over 10 million sets. These are overlays that occur during the program segment just when a viewer tunes into that program, hence, “switch-in.”

A third and final panel featuring NAB’s Skip Pizzi; Steve Bartkowicz of NBCU, Thad Beier of Dolby Labs, Howard Lukk of SMPTE, and David McElhatten of Fox Networks Group, addressed ATSC 3.0 content production, for which Siegler earlier urged producers in the audience to have “an open mind.”

Pizzi addressed some key differences in producing audio for ATSC 3.0, which supports the type of technology that make it sound like raindrops are falling all around a listener. This object, or immersive audio technology, can place discrete sounds throughout a defined three-dimensional space. Immersive audio involves 12-plus channels, or “N”objects,” he said. Among other things, Pizzi recommended producing in immersive and downmixing to 5.1 or stereo.

Lukk talked about the advanced video features enabled by ATSC 3.0—multiple frame rates, aspect rations, resolutions, 10-bit color for high dynamic range, and how some of these lend themselves more readily to episodic TV versus live broadcasting. High frame rate, he noted, tanked in traditional cinematic story-telling, and might be more effective as a plot device much the way black-and-white and color were used in “The Wizard of Oz.”

Beier addressed high dynamic range, and said the first order of doing it is to “shoot well, first of all.” He noted HDR is not just for brightness, but for blacks as well.

“We think doing HDR first makes the best product. Mapping from HDR to SDR is better than an SDR version done by hand,” he said.

Finally, McElhatten said the killer 3.0 app is personalization, particularly for sports.

“At Fox, we do more than 11,000 sporting events a year, more than 8,000, highly regional. I’ve tried to do enhancement on drama, but it’s very hard,” he said. McElhatten showed screengrabs of “live biometrics,” analytical data and other information on drive Dale Earnhardt in a NASCAR event.

He also showed an example of a live multiscreen portal using the multiple content channels NBC employed in the 2012 London Olympics.

“There were eight channels that NBC owned that were running Olympic content,” he said. The idea of the portal is that a broadcaster can show all of their channels in small windows on a single screen, so a viewer could pick and choose among ongoing live events.

Also see where ATSC 3.0 was last year during HPA…
Feb. 16, 2016
“HPA 2016: ATSC 3.0 Update”
Over-the-air TV is on its way to resembling a more robust version of the Internet with the realization of ATSC 3.0.

And then go ahead and check out our ATSC 3.0 silo for more TV Technology coverage, and please feel free to drop us a line with any questions you may have about the standard.