LAS VEGAS — Public broadcasters on opposite sides of the Ohio River are joining forces to launch ATSC 3.0 broadcasts in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
Beginning June 5, Kentucky Educational Television’s WCVN in Covington will carry the NextGen TV broadcasts for KET’s networks and two Public Media Connect stations in southwestern Ohio, CET in Cincinnati and WPTO (ThinkTV 14), licensed to Oxford.
The agreement, featured during a Thursday panel session at the Public Media Technology Summit, marks the first time separate public broadcasters have cooperated on an ATSC 3.0 launch.
For KET, which operates 16 transmitters across Kentucky’s rugged terrain, Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky will be its second market to add ATSC 3.0 service. Last September, it launched NextGen service in Louisville, the only market where KET owns two stations, WKPC and WKMJ.
KET implemented the new technology in Louisville on its own by converting WKMJ to ATSC 3.0, while commercial stations in the market simultaneously launched their ATSC 3.0 broadcasts through a separate partnership.
Cincinnati’s commercial stations launched their ATSC 3.0 partnership in September 2021 after forming a consortium that didn’t include KET or CET. Since KET doesn’t have a second signal in the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky market, it was unable to launch ATSC 3.0 independently.
“It really just started with me picking up the phone [to CET] and saying, ‘Hey, would you all like to work together?,’” says KET Chief Technology Officer Tim Bischoff, in an interview after the Tech Summit.
Public Media Connect had already entered the ATSC 3.0 world in its other market, Dayton, through a partnership involving its primary ThinkTV station, WPTD, and commercial broadcasters.
KET and Public Media Connect had used the same consulting firm, Heartland Video Systems, to help build out their ATSC 3.0 facilities, which made it easier to work together on a joint project. A fiber connection between KET’s headquarters in Lexington and Public Media Connect’s master control in Dayton will carry signals back and forth and feed each broadcaster’s transmitters.
“We were able to combine our knowledge of those projects while saving time and money by combining our efforts,” says Public Media Connect CFO/COO Lee Weinel in a statement announcing the partnership.
The project came together this spring in a matter of weeks after the stations quickly reached a basic agreement on how to deploy their signals, Bischoff says. From its Kentucky-based transmitter site, KET’s WCVN will carry ATSC 3.0 signals for its KET, KET2 and World channels and for CET and WPTO. Public Media Connect will carry ATSC 1.0 signals for KET’s main network and its KET-KY state government network on WCET’s transmitter. The KET2 network and KET PBS Kids will air in ATSC 1.0 over WPTO’s transmitter. Both operators will have space for datacasting over KET’s ATSC 3.0 transmitter as well. The partners are splitting the costs of launching the new service.
There will be some overlapping programming in the signal deployments: WPTO, for instance, has its own ThinkTV PBS Kids channel. But that’s nothing new in this overlapping market, Bischoff says. KET has been available on cable, satellite and over the air in Cincinnati for decades, though its mission continues to focus on communities in the growing Northern Kentucky region.
Viewers on the southern side of the border get commercial TV signals from their northern neighbors in Ohio. All of the market’s major network affiliates are headquartered in and focused on Cincinnati.
“They don’t get a lot of Kentucky news and information, so they really do rely on KET to bring them legislative coverage and our Kentucky Edition public affairs program, so that they can stay connected to the rest of the news that’s happening in their state,” Bischoff says.
NextGen TV app delivers more content
Meanwhile, to enhance its ATSC 3.0 service in Louisville, KET has just launched a new NextGen TV app for WKMJ.
Based on the RUN3TV platform developed by the Pearl TV consortium, KET’s app loads automatically when Louisville viewers with NextGen TV receivers tune to the WKMJ ATSC 3.0 signal. In addition to providing a KET program guide and QR codes that link to donation pages and KET’s member newsletter, the app integrates with PBS Media Manager to provide on-demand video, making KET the first pubcaster to offer that feature via NextGen TV.
KET’s interest in the technology started at last year’s NAB Show, Bischoff says, when Pearl offered a demo of one of its earliest apps. It ran on Louisville’s Fox affiliate, WDRB.
“We’re excited to be on the leading edge of this new technology,” says KET CEO Shae Hopkins.
At launch, the app’s local on-demand content features short clips from KET’s Kentucky Edition. But the integration with PBS Media Manager means that KET can also offer a large library of geo-fenced on-demand PBS content to its NextGen TV viewers. Additional long-form content from KET’s archives is also accessible.
Bischoff is still waiting for KET viewers to notice the new service and begin using it.
“It’s early days,” he says. “To use a horse-racing analogy, we’ve just gotten out of the gate here and we’re coming into the first turn, so we have to be realistic of where we are. We’re not rounding the final turn towards home. We’re just beginning.”
As the service matures, Bischoff hopes to be able to use NextGen TV to provide “virtual channels” — live streams that are accessed through the app but delivered over ATSC 3.0’s internet connection instead of over the air. For KET, that could support additional pop-up streams of hearing coverage and other events from the state capitol in Frankfort, where KET holds the contract to provide legislative coverage.
‘No viewer left behind’
Now that KET is on the air with ATSC 3.0 in its two largest markets, Bischoff will be looking for additional partnerships to extend NextGen TV deeper into the state, he says. It’s a complicated task for a network whose signals overlap 1o commercial media markets stretching from Virginia to Missouri.
While some of those markets have commercial partners who could enter NextGen TV consortiums with KET, the network also serves extremely rural parts of the state where its over-the-air signal is the only one available to viewers.
Mindful of its mission to serve all of Kentucky, Bischoff says KET is proceeding cautiously, using “no viewer left behind” as its motto. Access to KET’s ATSC 1.0 signals will continue for as long as that technology remains the primary way its audience receives KET programming, no matter how long that takes.
Current freelance contributor Scott Fybush moderated the ATSC 3.0 panel discussion at PMVG’s Public TV Technology Summit in which Bischoff participated with representatives of New Mexico PBS and Pearl TV.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly reported the number of KET stations with signals that overlap commercial media markets. It is 10, not 11. It also reported the wrong title for KET’s public affairs program. It is Kentucky Edition, not Evening Edition.