The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded a $1 million grant to the Public Media Venture Group to increase investment in ATSC 3.0 technology.
Based in Boulder, Colo., PMVG is a consortium of 32 public media organizations whose goal is determining how the new broadcasting standard, also known as NextGen TV, can best serve public media.
PMVG CEO Marc Hand said in an interview that the investment from the Knight Foundation follows approximately two years of discussions with the grantmaker. “It coincided with Knight wanting to look at, what are the key technology changes and developments going on in media and, more specifically, what could be some tie-ins with television?” he said.
“Ensuring that public media is able to adapt to new technology is a critical part of ensuring communities are informed and engaged,” said Jim Brady, Knight’s VP of journalism, in a news release. “That’s why we’ve invested in PMVG’s efforts to develop and deploy NextGen TV. It will allow public news stations to better serve their tens of millions of users.”
Since its founding in 2017, PMVG has advocated for increased investment in ATSC 3.0, shared lessons about challenges ahead, pushed for FCC rulings favorable to datacasting, and led the charge in helping stations introduce NextGen TV technology to audiences.
Hand said the Knight Foundation’s investment will support three major goals: moving PMVG stations into adopting ATSC 3.0, testing how NextGen TV can be best leveraged, and exploring what kinds of revenue it can generate. So far, eight PMVG stations are using ATSC 3.0.
“A lot of the transitions that have been done by the commercial groups … haven’t included public stations. That’s why this part of our work is really critical,” Hand said. PMVG aims to extend its stations’ 3.0 spectrum to at least 40 million people by the end of next year, when the 18-month grant concludes.
Content for incarceration facilities
PMVG will collaborate with the Information Equity Initiative, a nonprofit platform that transmits educational materials and interactive programming in communities that lack sufficient broadband access. IEI, led by CEO Erik Langner, is working on test cases involving correctional facilities in Virginia and education programs alongside work in health care and emergency communications.
Formed in 2021, IEI has signed Sesame Workshop as its first content partner in an effort to distribute new educational content over its platform. Both Hand and Langner previously worked at Public Media Co., the Boulder consulting firm that helped form PMVG.
IEI has built a datacasting network for distributing a content library that can be accessed by stations. “We developed [IEI] anticipating that it would be a domestic K-12 platform because we were formed and incorporated kind of in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Langner said. But he now sees other uses for ATSC 3.0 that many PBS stations can adopt.
Langner said the content library is available at two incarceration facilities. IEI is currently engaged in conversations with facilities in four states, though he declined to discuss which ones. It’s also working on a third project with an incarceration facility in partnership with a research group that will assist in distributing content that can help people reenter the workforce, overcome and manage addictions, and access entertainment, therapy and mental wellness resources. Once it’s built, the library will be freely available to public TV stations.
By the end of this year, Langner said, IEI will be in about 150 federally qualified health centers with bilingual touchscreen kiosks. The “highly scalable program” also applies to educational organizations, Langner said. IEI is also focused on health and safety content that can be distributed during disasters and emergencies.
Hand said PMVG is working with WCTE in Cookeville, Tenn., to determine how ATSC 3.0 can be adopted in different markets. As part of this project, PMVG is working with RAPA, a South Korea–based organization. In 2017, South Korea became the first country to deploy the NextGen TV standard. It was used in preparation for the 2018 Winter Olympics.
Last year, a low-power TV owner donated a station in Algood, Tenn., to PMVG, which is now using the station to test NextGen TV. Hand said there are plans to use more low-power stations to get ATSC 3.0 to more audiences.
PMVG and IEI are identifying hardware companies to partner with on distributing devices required to make ATSC 3.0 available to home audiences.
“Commercial broadcasters are interested in targeted advertising, and what we’re interested in is targeted content,” Hand said. He wants to know “what are the things public stations can do to target content to unique use groups, or language groups, or neighborhood areas? … This also applies to the audio side because of the capacity for 3.0 to be able to provide as many audio channels as SiriusXM.”
‘Uphill battle’ for adoption
Another challenge is getting public stations on the 3.0 spectrum. Hand noted that although commercial broadcasters in the San Francisco market have already converted to the new standard, KQED was left out. Once more public media stations can access the new standard, Hand said, “we can piggyback on some of the consumer adoption promotions that have already been done by the commercial stations. And then I think it’s a matter of working with the public stations to uniquely tailor some of the education use cases for 3.0 to their audiences.”
“It remains an uphill battle,” Hand said. It’s not that commercial organizations don’t care about public media, he said, but larger for-profit companies can negotiate on a national level and determine which markets they want to have for ATSC 3.0. Since public stations don’t have that advantage, conversations in local markets about the value of ATSC 3.0 in public media are ongoing.
Going forward, Langner said, the most pressing issue is figuring out how to best leverage ATSC 3.0 to distribute content.
“Ultimately, the reason we’re seeing increasing interest in what we do is because you’re seeing continued year-over-year declines in linear audiences,” Langner said. By finding new uses for NextGen TV through partnerships, he said, public broadcasters can leverage their mission to reach all communities and be “in the facilitator role within the community with NGOs and government agencies, while also opening new pathways to revenue.”