Tech Lessons Learned in the 2010s

(Image credit: Getty Images/Ko Hong-Wei/EyeEm)

The end of the decade is upon us and time to take a look at how the last 10 years impacted broadcasters. As usual, it’s a mixed bag of successes and a few failures, illustrating the rocky path for our industry as we transition from television as we knew it to a whole new paradigm.

In 2010, I acquired my first streaming box and talked about it in these pages. At the time, I referred to my second-generation Apple TV box as an “IPTV” box—a quaint reference a decade later. Back then, I would classify my opinion as “cautious optimism,” calling Apple TV’s biggest attraction its price, easy setup and user interface. I don’t think there’s any question about how the Apple TV box ushered in a revolution of OTT and streaming services that not only influenced how we watched but what we watched. The mobility of television—prompted by the influx of more powerful devices, faster connections and more efficient compression—was perhaps the biggest jump in television technology during the decade.

The desire for the “next big thing” however, led us down several precarious paths. After HDTV had taken hold in the last half of the previous decade, programmers and manufacturers needed a hook to increase interest and the bottom line. At that point, we hooked our star to 3D, which came and went in a flash. Even though the concept had been around for decades, we seemed to think that high-resolution displays and better production technology would spur new interest among consumers. But in the end, it was unrealistic expectations hampered by what has been 3D’s Achilles heel since its inception: the need to wear glasses, lack of content and the limited viewing angles.

3D managed to hang on at the movie theater for several more years but now is hardly anywhere to be seen (at least domestically). File 3DTV in the “what were we thinking” files and perhaps, next time, we won’t be so eager to glom onto “the next big thing” just because we were looking for it.

Another technology that never really got off the ground (literally) was mobile DTV (aka “ATSC 2.0). What started as an opportunity in the latter part of the last decade to take advantage of excess digital spectrum to broadcast signals to screens (even in a car going 75 MPH) flamed out quickly. The reasons for its demise, however provided a teachable moment for our industry: the lack of cooperation from a cellular industry that was itself just beginning to see profits from streaming video. Samsung, which has been involved in the development of ATSC standards, did offer up a few handsets with a mobile DTV chip and a few dongles were made available at retail, but the refusal of Apple and cellular providers to incorporate mobile DTV chipsets was the final nail in the coffin.

Although the development of the next version of ATSC 3.0 had already been planned during that time, the failure of mobile DTV was an important lesson to our industry as we reached outside of our business and beyond the traditional TV set to insert our presence into the increasingly mobile world. Although a lot of naysayers are skeptical because of its lack of backward compatibility, ATSC 3.0 (aka NEXTGEN TV) offers our industry the best hope of relevance in an IP-based world. Next year has been hailed as the “breakout year” for the fledgling standard and by next December, we may be able to better judge its success.

The threat of cellular to the broadcast industry made its biggest impact during the latter half of the decade when the FCC finally moved ahead with its promise of auctioning off broadcast spectrum—a battle broadcasters had been fighting since before the decade began, (“Broadcasters Ready to Fight,” was the headline on the Jan. 6, 2010 issue of TV Technology). This has forced our industry to adjust to fewer channels and spectrum availability, with the threat of additional auctions on the horizon. In adapting to this new world, however, we are using new standards and concepts such as single frequency networks to ensure signal reliability.

IP is what prompted the mobile screen revolution during the decade and it’s IP that may have the biggest impact on our production capacity in the coming decade. To say we as an industry are moving too slowly, though is to ignore the standards that are expected of us. Streamers use the term “broadcast quality” to characterize the Holy Grail of programming—low latency, high resolution and enhanced audio. Our industry established that standard many decades ago and although IP brings with it enormous flexibility, viewers look to us to provide the five 9s of reliability and quality. That won’t go away anytime soon, as evidenced by last month’s rocky rollout for Disney+.

To all our friends and colleagues, have a fantastic holiday season and we’ll see you in the next decade!

Tom Butts

Tom has covered the broadcast technology market for the past 25 years, including three years handling member communications for the National Association of Broadcasters followed by a year as editor of Video Technology News and DTV Business executive newsletters for Phillips Publishing. In 1999 he launched for internet B2B portal Verticalnet. He is also a charter member of the CTA's Academy of Digital TV Pioneers. Since 2001, he has been editor-in-chief of TV Tech (, the leading source of news and information on broadcast and related media technology and is a frequent contributor and moderator to the brand’s Tech Leadership events.