Attendees at PBS TechCon hear details of ATSC standard’s promise

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LAS VEGAS — The new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard won’t wash your car, fold your laundry or provide tomorrow’s winning lottery numbers. Beyond that, though, broadcasters attending PBS TechCon are being promised a wide array of benefits from the next-generation digital TV system that’s a focus of this year’s convention.

“There is really a significant opportunity for increased service,” Public Media Company CEO Marc Hand told a standing-room crowd at a TechCon session Wednesday that identified four broad areas in which ATSC 3.0 can benefit public TV broadcasters.

Improved picture and sound quality are perhaps the most immediately visible benefits, said Terry Douds, broadcast operations supervisor at WOUB Public Media in Athens, Ohio.

“4K video is available everywhere now, but we can’t broadcast it yet,” Douds said. “You can stream it on Netflix, you can get a Blu-ray disk and get 4K on it, but we can’t put it over the air.“

ATSC 3.0 will bring not only 4K video but also HDR (high dynamic range) and WCG (wide color gamut), creating much more lifelike pictures. It will also allow broadcasters to move from the present 5.1-channel surround sound standard to “immersive audio,” using 7.1 audio channels plus four more channels of audio from above the viewing area.

“A lot of stations don’t even broadcast 5.1 surround yet,” Douds said. “PBS has some amazing content, and some of you are missing out on an amazing part of the viewing experience.” Douds says ATSC 3.0 will also provide for enhanced audio intelligibility and more accessibility features such as closed signing along with closed captioning.

The interactive components of ATSC 3.0 also allow for better audience measurement and interactivity, Douds said. That could include delivering customized programming exclusively to members.

“PBS has led the way for decades with satellite distribution and high-end production standards,” Douds said. He called for more partnerships with commercial broadcasters that could make PBS content desirable for early adopters of ATSC 3.0. “The end result is better TV enjoymemt,” he said.

Adam Woodlief, director of engineering services for UNC-TV in Chapel Hill, N.C., says ATSC 3.0 will also enhance his existing partnerships with emergency providers such as the statewide FirstNetNC communications system.

UNC-TV already provides bandwidth on its existing ATSC 1.0 statewide network for FirstNetNC, but Woodlief says the 3.0 system will provide many more opportunities for emergency service. Public-facing alerts such as storm warnings can be targeted more narrowly under ATSC 3.0, pushing warnings of a brewing snowstorm to viewers in western North Carolina, for example, while viewers on the coast can continue to watch regular programming uninterrupted. The increased bandwidth of 3.0 will allow delivery of more encrypted and private services, too, such as video from emergency scenes that can be sent to first responders.

Working closely with emergency providers can help build support for needed funding for the ATSC 3.0 conversion, Woodlief said, especially in areas such as North Carolina where state dollars provide much of the system’s budget.

“If you can get some public service going now with the current transmission standards, it can bridge the gap going forward,” he said. “Emergency providers can start to be a voice for you.“

Hand described another benefit to ATSC 3.0: Its more robust COFDM transmission system will allow pubcasters to reach those viewers who struggle to get their existing ATSC 1.0 signals. “The pictures are great and all, but the potential for increased coverage is really eye-opening,” he said.

For university-licensed stations, the added bandwidth of ATSC 3.0 will also allow for more services that are specific to an educational mission without interfering with primary public TV service, Hand said.

“The ask isn’t just for prettier pictures” when it comes time to seek funding for the conversion, he said.

Because the ATSC 3.0 conversion is voluntary for broadcasters, at least initially, Hand said there are new revenue opportunities for licensees as well. The FCC is expected to ask broadcasters in each market to cooperate to provide a “lighthouse” ATSC 1.0 service that will continue to offer at least some channels in the old format while other broadcasters convert to 3.0. Hand said public TV stations could choose to pioneer 3.0 service in their markets, sharing bandwidth with commercial services while putting some of their own content on a competitor’s lighthouse 1.0 signal. Or a pubcaster could provide lighthouse 1.0 service on its own bandwidth while putting 3.0 content on a commercial station’s bandwidth.

And because 3.0 includes interactive capabilities that will depend on using viewers’ own broadband connections for two-way communication, Hand notes that “it fits within FCC rules” for public broadcasters to run commercials over those broadband feeds, another opportunity for increased revenue.

Broadcasters still face many questions as they approach 3.0, Hand acknowledged, including the speed of audience adoption and the cost of conversion. To assist in those costs, PMC has secured $20 million from a nonprofit lender to create a revolving loan fund to assist broadcasters making the move to ATSC 3.0.