As Public Media Venture Group works to take the ATSC 3.0 “NextGen” digital TV standard from concept to on-air reality, it has hired Skip Pizzi, one of the key developers of the standard, as a consultant.
Pizzi comes to PMVG with a broad range of experience that started in public broadcasting, where he spent more than a decade as an audio engineer at NPR headquarters in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s. He worked for the National Association of Broadcasters from 2010 until he left his role as VP of technology education and outreach last year. Pizzi will retain a portion of that role consulting for NAB in addition to his work with the group of 33 public stations that make up PMVG.
Pizzi has also worked for Microsoft, and since 2011 he has served as vice chair of the ATSC Technology Group 3 that drafted the specifications for the new technology.
His new role with PMVG is actually a return to a group he played a role in forming. As CEO Marc Hand was bringing together stations to create PMVG in 2017, Pizzi volunteered his time to lead three listening sessions around the country to assess stations’ interest in participating.
Now that both PMVG and ATSC 3.0 are off the ground, Pizzi said Hand recently reached out for help navigating the station group’s next steps. He’s eager to take a more hands-on role to make the technology truly take off.
“It’s personally refreshing for me to be dealing with any kind of deployment after spending the better part of the last decade working in the ivory tower of a standards organization,” Pizzi said. “Now to actually be working with folks who are doing it on the ground, and particularly also personally returning to sort of the roots of mission-based public broadcasting as a result is just kind of a nice bonus.”
Getting more pubTV ATSC 3 on the air
In his new role with PMVG, Pizzi’s mission is to turn the ongoing discussion about ATSC 3.0 launches into an on-the-air reality. It’s an area where he acknowledges big commercial broadcasters such as Sinclair and Nexstar have beaten public TV to the starting line with splashy rollouts of the technology.
“In the majority of the market transitions that have taken place, public television has been left out of it,” Pizzi said. “Not all of them, but most. So public TV is sort of left figuring out what it wants to do for itself.”
While that might look like a disadvantage, Pizzi argues that the big multistation alliances that have put ATSC 3.0 on the air in places such as Phoenix, Baltimore and Portland, Ore., are complicated logistical and financial juggling acts, forcing multiple owners to figure out ATSC 1.0 “lighthouse” operations to preserve their reach to existing ATSC 1.0 receivers, only to have to rearrange signals again later on as more signals in each market convert to 3.0.
“But you could shortcut that process if you only got one other partner, let’s say. In fact, that’s the optimum kind of situation,” Pizzi argued. “If you could pair stations up just one to one, capacity’s not a big issue.”
Even with big commercial stations already committed to existing ATSC 3.0 alliances, Pizzi said public stations have plenty of opportunities to work with low-power stations in their markets to create those one-to-one pairings for simpler ATSC 3.0 launches. Working with low-power licensees also eases the regulatory burden, since the LPTV station’s content isn’t automatically required to be duplicated on ATSC 3.0. In several markets where stations have partnered with an LPTV outlet to launch a 3.0 outlet, Pizzi said, early studies have shown that the NextGen technology overcomes much of the coverage deficiency of low-power TV signals, providing signal penetration almost equal to a full-power ATSC 1.0 signal.
Whether the 3.0 signal comes from a partner LPTV or from a pubcaster’s own transmitter, a situation so far in play only at two public TV stations, Pizzi says the goal is to keep public TV stations in as much control of the process as possible.
“There are some cases where we have state networks, or even single-market duopolies, where the public station can control completely their own destiny in-house,” he said. “So that’s really advantageous.”
A holiday boost for consumer adoption
On the other end of the chicken-egg equation, Pizzi’s extensive experience in the consumer electronics business included his stint with Microsoft as well as close contact with equipment vendors through his NAB and ATSC work. With only four major producers of TV sets sold in North America, Pizzi said at least three are fully committed to adding NextGen receiver capability to the sets that will be on the market as soon as this winter.
“They’re not needing a mandate to make them put the 3.0-capable sets out there,” he said. “And in fact Sony has already announced their next entire line is going to be 3.0.”
Pizzi says that change will happen in time for this holiday season, with other manufacturers making ATSC 3.0 standard in top-end sets and adding it to cheaper TVs later.
“Within probably another year or two, it’ll be hard to buy a set that doesn’t have 3.0 in there whether people are asking for it or not,” Pizzi said.
Consumer demand for ATSC 3.0’s video features — more robust reception, 4K ultra-HD and more realistic color reproduction — may not be the most important reason for public stations to get more aggressive about moving into NextGen, though. Pizzi says public TV stations are especially well-positioned to get funding for ATSC 3.0 buildouts that focus on nonbroadcast uses, such as datacasting for education and other purposes. (PMVG is a shareholder in the Signal Infrastructure Group, which recently spun off a new entity, the Information Equity Initiative, focused on educational datacasting.)
“In the educational space, there’s a lot of grants and subsidies and other things that can really help accelerate the transition,” Pizzi said. In the longer term, he’s also optimistic about the mobile uses of ATSC 3.0, including the possibility that automakers might pay stations to use data bandwidth for providing speedier software updates to the telematics in new cars.
Pizzi is beginning his work with PMVG on a short-term basis, with hopes of entering into a “more robust” long-term consulting relationship in 2022. Initially, he said, he’s in listening mode as he looks for ways to assist in ATSC 3.0 transitions both at early-adopter stations and those that are waiting for the right time to jump in.
“Right now I’m talking with a lot of the key tech folks, the CTOs and so forth, at the various companies that are members. And it’s an interesting group,” he said. “A number of them are really pretty far along in their transitions. Then the others are very interested and engaged, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be [PMVG] members, but have not gone very far.”
As those conversations turn into action, Pizzi said he’s excited to once again be directly involved with PMVG and public broadcasting.
“Public TV is really well on its way to leveraging this new technology on a number of different levels,” Pizzi said. “And that will end up being a win-win-win when you think about the broadcaster, the business opportunities and the consumers.”
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Pizzi will continue in the role of VP of technology education and outreach for NAB. Pizzi left that role in 2020. He continues as a consultant to NAB.