It’s All Just ‘Television,’ Or Is It?

JOHNSTON, IOWA—I’ve spent a considerable amount over the last few years working on projects that examine what television broadcasting will be like in the future. Between my involvement with ATSC 3.0, the NAB Next Generation Broadcast Platform committee, the Future of Broadcast Television and the IEEE Broadcast Technology Society, I have devoted a lot of attention to trying to understand what television will look like in the not too distant future and what role Iowa Public Television will play. The nice thing about committing the time to participating in all of these activities is that it exposes me to a lot of cutting-edge thinking and really broadens my view of the future. I would like to take this column to share a few of my thoughts.

Syncbak is just one of several ways to get a local station’s service to the preferred device of many viewers and allow them to consume content on their own terms. GOING MOBILE
I think we need to rethink the concept of mobile, which many of us continue to consider as an add-on to our traditional broadcast service. And why wouldn’t we? The existing mobile service is just that: an add-on. The problem with thinking about it that way is that the audience doesn’t think about in those terms. Some facts that we are going to have to face is that the opportunity for growth in viewership for television is not in sets sitting in the living room but on tablets and phablets being carried everywhere by everyone. I would encourage you to stop thinking in terms of what portion of your service will be mobile and what portion will be fixed, and just think about it as your service. People will consume content on whatever device is most convenient and meets their needs and they expect the service to work. Almost everyone has a mobile phone and they expect it to work whether they are mobile or sitting still… it is not a mobile service, it is simply “the service.”

Along the same lines, we can tailor content based on the preferred consumption device, but we need to recognize that this is not absolute and that the consumer may use a less than optimal device for consuming the content. This is nothing new to us; color television programs were viewed on black and white televisions and stereo television programs were listened to on monaural sets. We didn’t make different versions of the same program to address the different capabilities of the devices. These receivers collected the entire service and then displayed the content based on the capabilities within the device; we should expect nothing less from the next generation of consumer devices.

But even if our target device is the traditional fixed television receiver we still need to adjust our vision of what television is. In the majority of television sets being sold today, the RF receiver is just one of the many ways of getting services into the device. Smart televisions come with Ethernet connections, Wi-Fi connection and multiple HDMI inputs in addition to the standard RF connector. Over time it will not be surprising to see that the RF connector becomes the least utilized input on the television as even the wired services such as cable and satellite their set top boxes use an HDMI input to the television. Ultimately we may see the over-the-air tuner become an option within a television that very few people purchase.

Within the work being done by the standards development organizations (SDO) and affinity groups working on the next generation of broadcast standards we are looking at “hybrid delivery” of content. The idea of some portion of the total content being synchronously delivered to the primary or secondary devices via a distribution channel other than the over-the-air stream is being developed. We are already seeing handheld devices that can display the content they receive on a smart television on the same network. It doesn’t take a large stretch of the imagination to look at that as eventually being a full duplex connection with both devices working together to enhance the viewing experience.

Another consideration for local broadcasters is the role that the over-the-air signal plays in the station’s overall delivery strategy. Stations need to adjust their thinking to recognize that their over-the-air service— while important to their identity—is one method of reaching the audience but certainly not the only way.

I have recently been in conversations with Syncbak regarding their service for delivering station content to internet connected devices within the coverage area of the station. This service takes a direct feed from the station using an IP connection of typically 5 to 6 Mbps per stream and—using their technology for determining the location of the Wi-Fi enabled device—deliver the stream to devices that are within the coverage contour of the station. This is another way of getting a local station’s service to the preferred device of many viewers and allowing them to consume content on their own terms.

I don’t take these thoughts lightly. Compared to the national averages, a larger percentage of our viewers rely on our over-the-air service but having said that, I still must acknowledge that the majority of our traditional viewers are watching our service via a delivery method that is not using the over-the-air signal. If we want our audiences to grow, it is not going to be by redesigning our service to be incrementally better at reaching fixed receivers. Our service has to be available to them where they want it and on the devices of their choosing and sometimes that is going to be via our own over-the-air delivery and sometimes it may be through strategic partnerships with outside entities.

My final thought is to encourage my local station colleagues to get involved in the process of creating and vetting the standards. There are a number of groups within organizations like ATSC and FoBTV that would welcome participation and input from knowledgeable people working at local stations. If you are interested in getting involved, contact me and I will be glad to point you in the right direction.

Bill Hayes is the director of engineering for Iowa Public Television. He can be reached via TV Technology.

Bill Hayes

Bill Hayes is the former director of engineering and technology for Iowa PBS and has been at the forefront of broadcast TV technology for more than 40 years. He’s a former president of IEEE’s Broadcast Technology Society, is a Partnership Board Member of the International Broadcasting Convention (IBC) and has contributed extensively to SMPTE and ATSC.  He is a recipient of Future's 2021 Tech Leadership Award and SMPTE Fellow.