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Next Gen TV: Will the Bang Match the Buzz?

You might not have noticed the buzz. What’s the buzz? Now that’s a classic ’ole game I used to play in “the olden times”: I’d grab my tools and my test gear, slide down off my dinosaur, and try to troubleshoot that gawd-awful, annoying TV buzz. Usually, an over-deviated modulator, a lifted ground or my own personal gremlin, the cold solder joint, was to blame, and the viewing experience was soon restored to mediocrity… a hallmark of the NTSC standard.

These days, light-years away from the technologies of my youth, there’s a different gawd-awful, annoying TV buzz: the high-frequency buzz induced by marketers spinning the ATSC 3.0 feature set.

Of course, it’s not just marketers of consumer electronics, or even broadcast equipment purveyors, crankin’ the buzz generator for 3.0. Rightfully enough, it’s the noble architects of the ATSC itself, whose long and ignominious labors have delivered this bundle of joy to the world. Just stop and think about that task for a minute: warring factions seated around the table, each pitching a hair-brained—and often self-serving—idea about what’s a must-have vs. a no-can-do.

That’s more of a nightmare than the holiday Seven Fishes dinner with Mario’s famiglia… and at least we had my mama nonna whacking the uncles with a wooden spoon when they got outta line. Sheesh.

Is 3.0 buzz-worthy, empirically speaking? You betcha. But the annoying part is that it’s a big buzz for a small, inbred audience—and by that, I mean us. Aside from us techno-nerds, here’s the thing about ATSC 3.0 and its fantabulous features: I don’t think anybody cares.

Stick with me here: Have you seen the astounding statistics for consumer adoption of UHD? Crazy, right? Runaway success. But uno momento per favore, I’m thinkin’ that the consumers who drove that trend have no idea what UHD is, much less that there’s almost no way to view 4K content today. They simply bought a TV… and, lo and behold, they’re a 4K trendsetter, because those are pretty much the only TVs you can buy. They didn’t care about UHD and 4K, or about surround decoders, or “smart TV” features. They didn’t care about features.

Of course, if you’re an advertiser or marketing wonk, and you want that ATSC 3.0-delivered data stream of granular viewing data, you love the buzz. If you’re a content owner looking to lock up your intellectual property, that buzz means bucks. And, of course, if you’re sellin’ TV sets, well, 3.0 gives you a valid claim on delivering the newest and best tech there is.

But let’s pause for a reality check here… an occupational slap-in-the-chops… and admit that OTA isn’t exactly the bees’ knees any more. There are relatively fewer viewers reached with RF than with boxes and bits; and… if ol’ Mario may dare to hazard a guess… many of the OTA folks aren’t gadgeteers, not as tech-savvy.

One of the real technical triumphs of the 3.0 standard is to bring off-air viewers, armed with nothing more than $12 plastic panel antennas and rooftop bowties, some of the same advanced features boasted by set-top boxes, Rokus and tablets. I know, we’re not allowed to talk about it—I swore the same no-such-thing-as-cord-cutting oath as you did—but some of the ATSC’s jazziest stuff just doesn’t mean anything to those on the eyeball end of the broadcast chain. It could… it should! But the likelihood is low that they’ll ever know about the goodies rolled into 3.0.

And that makes me sad, because along with the wizards of the ATSC and the manufacturers who support both the consumer and broadcast sides, we engineers did what we do best… what we always do. We found clever ways to trick a hostile technical platform—channelized, old-school RF transmitters—into doing basically the same whizbang magic that the digital kids embed with a chunk o’ code.

Some of us will reap some modest benefits here and there, but the rest will have to be satisfied with simply being proud of the crazy-wonderful technical tour-de-force… the HEVC, the AC4, companion devices, IP embeds and watermarking, the whole shebang.

And that’s why the ATSC 3.0 buzz is makin’ me nuts. Because I’m just wondrin’ whether anyone will actually notice.

Mario Orazio is the pseudonym for a well-known television engineer who wishes to remain anonymous. Email him