New York’s WNET Group is preparing to become the first broadcaster in the nation’s largest TV market to launch the new ATSC 3.0 “NextGen” digital standard, moving ahead of the city’s commercial stations by building one of the largest NextGen projects operated entirely by a public broadcaster.
“We think this is an inflection point,” said Bob Feinberg, WNET Group VP of business development. “We stood up a working group at WNET more than a year ago to educate ourselves on the technology and the players in the space. We’ve met with broadcasters, we’ve met with consultants, we’ve met with some of the industry groups that have been active.”
Public TV stations in other large markets such as Phoenix and Portland have launched ATSC 3.0 broadcasts by joining partnerships with commercial stations, but WNET’s situation is unique, Feinberg said.
Since 2019, WNET Group has operated two full-power signals from the market’s main transmitter site atop One World Trade Center in lower Manhattan — both WNET’s own VHF-band signal and the UHF-band signal of its sister station, WLIW. In a strategic move anticipating eventual ATSC 3.0 conversion, WLIW relocated from its previous transmitter site on Long Island during the FCC’s spectrum repack.
“One of the important victories was having moved WLIW to the World Trade Center,” said Frank Graybill, senior director of engineering. “There’s no way you would have been able to do this otherwise.”
Other broadcasters also operate multiple signals in New York, including stations owned by CBS and Fox. Those stations also share their spectrum with other licensees, making it harder for them to shift to ATSC 3.0 operation — and easier for WNET to move forward unilaterally.
“We’re pleased to be in this position to really sort of chart our own course, but we’re not excluding the possibility that as we move forward, we might find some way to collaborate with some of our commercial colleagues in the market,” Feinberg said. “But at the moment, we don’t see a need to do that.”
While WNET is by far the largest public broadcaster to launch ATSC 3.0 on its own, it has company in smaller markets. WKAR in East Lansing, Mich., has experimented with a second ATSC 3.0 signal, and PBS North Carolina used some of its transmitters with overlapping signals for its transition. In Albuquerque, where New Mexico PBS operates two signals from the Sandia Crest tower site, the pubcaster launched ATSC 3.0 service in July from its second station, KNMD, while consolidating all five of its ATSC 1.0 signals on its original outlet, KNME.
Once it receives FCC approval, WNET plans to move WLIW’s ATSC 1.0 broadcasts to the WNET VHF signal. WLIW’s UHF signal will carry the ATSC 3.0 streams of both stations.
WNET Group has to clear multiple hurdles before the stations sign on their ATSC 3.0 signal, Graybill said, so the timeline for launch hasn’t been announced. His team is working with transmitter manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz on what he calls a “fairly simple” upgrade to the new WLIW transmitter to allow it to broadcast a 3.0 signal.
As with any ATSC 3.0 conversion, WNET Group will need to remind viewers to rescan their existing ATSC 1.0 tuners to receive WLIW’s signals over the WNET transmitter. Cable companies that receive WLIW over the air will also need to retune their receivers.
WNET has already tested the encoding that will allow it to add additional HD signals to its VHF ATSC 1.0 signal, which will carry three HD and three SD channels once WLIW begins channel-sharing there. The encoding for the new ATSC 3.0 signal is a “work in progress,” Graybill said, as WNET works with its centralized master control at Central Cast in Syracuse, N.Y.
Central Cast has already been providing ATSC 3.0 programming to at least one member station, PBS North Carolina. The North Carolina network does its own ATSC 3.0 encoding locally, Graybill noted, while WNET has not yet decided whether its encoding and data insertion will take place in Syracuse or in New York City.
Once the ATSC 3.0 signal launches, WNET will move ahead in stages to take advantage of the new format, Feinberg said.
“We look forward to providing enhanced video, enhanced audio, interactivity — all the promises for viewers that 3.0 offers,” he said. “There’s certainly the ability to derive revenue from datacasting, location services, what have you, that can help support our mission in the programming we create. There’s also mission-driven datacasting, as we look to opportunities to serve educational audiences and justice-involved incarcerated audiences.”
Big supporting cast
In addition to its own in-house technology team, the WNET Group brought together a group of consultants to assist in its ATSC 3.0 conversion.
“We recognized early on that NextGen was not just something that gets dumped on the engineer and everyone else goes on with business as usual,” Feinberg said. WNET recently formed a strategy and sustainability committee of its board, which will be directly supervising the project along with CEO Neal Shapiro.
“The organization is fully behind this, just as we were behind the launch of Passport and any number of other streaming developments,” Feinberg said.
Media consultant Skip Pizzi has been hired as project manager, working with Central Cast, the Public Media Venture Group and engineering consultant Aldo Cugnini of AGC Systems LLC. WNET was a founding member of the AWARN Alliance, which will work with the WNET team on public safety alerting, while BIA Advisory Services and the law firm Lerman Senter PLLC will assist with business and regulatory issues.
Making a splash on a big stage
As the first ATSC 3.0 entrant in the nation’s biggest media market, WNET is prepared for the spotlight.
“As viewers and set manufacturers and datacasting companies see this moving into the largest television market in the country, I think that’s going to make people pay more attention to the NextGen transition,” Feinberg said. WNET’s Feb. 1 announcement of its plans pushes the ATSC 3.0 conversion over an important milestone, with markets covering more than 50% of the U.S. population now having NextGen conversions in process.
The urban canyons of New York City have made over-the-air reception of ATSC 1.0 signals a challenge for many viewers. As few as 10% of the market’s more than 7 million households get their signals with an antenna, Feinberg said. He hopes the better multipath resistance and more robust signal of ATSC 3.0 will help to bring more viewers back to over-the-air signals, especially as more new TV sets come equipped with receiver chips.
Moving forward, WNET hopes to take advantage of ATSC 3.0’s ability to use single-frequency network boosters to expand its signal reach to outlying parts of the sprawling New York market, especially into neighboring New Jersey, where the WNET Group operates the NJ PBS network for the state.
To Feinberg, WNET Group’s role as a public broadcaster at the front of the transition is most important.
“Some people, sadly, might not think about public media as being technology-forward,” he said. “I think this is an opportunity for us to set them straight.”