Periodically, we hear that over-the-air (OTA) broadcasting has been diagnosed as dying, laid low by some new technology promising to better inform, entertain or educate us, measure our preferences or sell us products. After each such announcement, we find that broadcast isn’t really dead, but transformed and risen out of the ashes of its past. It’s happening again; the sequel on the streets now is ATSC 3.0, broadcasting’s latest reaction to challenges from interactive, Internet-based media delivery, higher-quality imaging and extreme (aka over-the-top, or OTT) entertainment.
Will digital media take over television? Digital technology enables television broadcasting, but the business model of television seems to be as strong as ever, and the creative products of television are seen in many nontraditional broadcast outlets. The process should be familiar to us by now. When HDTV surfaced, specialized production facilities popped up to produce HDTV programming, but the ones that survived already had existing expertise to produce compelling content, as well as the ability to adapt to the new technology. On a broader scale, we’re seeing a similar effect as new digital outlets flock to traditional program sources—OTA television producers still have a pretty heavy hand in content creation.
MYTH: TV Is Dead
How are OTA broadcasters responding to the pressure from the Internet and OTT? If you can’t lick ’em, join ’em. ATSC 3.0 is being deployed to allow OTA broadcasters to provide user features like, or better than, those available from Internet and other direct-to-home information service providers. It will support a merging of Internet interactivity with high-volume OTA distribution—adding many-from-one “pull” capability to the historical one-to-many “push” capability that made OTA television indispensable to viewers before advanced cable and high-bandwidth Internet providers decided to become content producers and to bypass OTA. At its limit, the interchange becomes “social media meets OTA.”
The driver for all these developments is a need to create new ways to attract and/or retain advertisers. Alternate models for revenue generation from information distribution persist—monthly subscription services and pay-per-view options continue to surface in new media channels, but the advertising-supported models from newspapers, magazines, and OTA radio and television have migrated into and evolved with Internet and direct wired and wireless connections to users. New media has moved from intermittent consumer sampling of user preferences (polling) to near-real-time response to user selection choices with targeted advertising and custom catalog generation based on individual consumer desires. Broadcasters want to expand their success with traditional advertising models into these new technology-enabled approaches.
In the early 1990s, the Advanced Television Systems Committee created the ATSC standards, 36 combinations of image sizes, shapes and frame rates defining digital transmission in the U.S. The ATSC described the modes of video and audio compression and transmission to be used. “ATSC” eventually replaced the 50-plus-year-old U.S. analog “NTSC” broadcast system in 2009. It was a long and tortuous trek, with strong opinions and objections along the way, and broadcasters didn’t really accept the high-definition elements of the standards long after the introduction. But consumer equipment arrived to support the new developments, technologies matured, and no one is looking back.
From the introduction of the ATSC standards, it was understood that many of the technical decisions were being obsoleted as fast as they were introduced. Other countries made decisions that produced better mobile reception, the most commonly noted being DVB-T in Europe and ISDB-T in South America, which both use COFDM modulation, instead of the more fragile, if somewhat more powerful, 8VSB modulation of ATSC. ATSC 2.0 was proposed to introduce improved compression, interactive features and other services, but remains backward-compatible with the original ATSC.
Before ATSC 2.0 was ready, video compression techniques leapfrogged the MPEG-2 encoding used in ATSC, and the designers realized that good controls weren’t built into ATSC to allow feature and performance improvements to be added over time. ATSC 2.0 was proposed as a set of fixes to the original standard, but it was overcome by the move to rewrite the book to include better transmission performance and overcome problems with mobile reception with more efficient video compression and layered encoding, as well as improved emergency and viewer accessibility features, and, perhaps, most importantly, the capability to extend the standard to accommodate new developments. Unfortunately, the price of simplifying future extensions was backward-compatibility, so new sets or new converter boxes will be required to receive and decode these new signals.
ATSC 3.0 is the broadcast industry’s attempt to bring those improvements to the home. Because broadcasting is still a large market, whatever broadcasters decide to implement will affect the products that we’ll have to deliver. ATSC 3.0 components are designed to accommodate some acquisition developments that we’re already discussing, however, so a bigger impact might be caused by the integration tools that will be part of the postproduction and packaging process rather than acquisition. Perhaps the biggest changes will be needed in the display world. Current video transport standards won’t support the data rates necessary to handle higher image resolution, higher dynamic range, higher frame rates, wider-gamut color and multiple image streams, all at once, so we might need to change out segments of our systems to accommodate more data faster. Video experts are already telling us that video editing and distribution systems will move toward high-data-rate networks instead of the traditional dedicated point-to-point connections that we’ve grown used to.
You should start to see the introduction of ATSC 3.0 in South Korea next year, in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics, and then in the U.S. the following year. And we’ll quickly see how well the extensible design and the standardization process can handle new developments. U.S. tests are underway now, but the standard isn’t finalized, consumer hardware isn’t readily available, and we won’t see widespread use for at least a couple of years. So you have a little time—time to prepare and time for additional changes to affect your decisions. HDVP
Charles “C.R.” Caillouet is a technical producer and video engineer who has worked in TV production, from preproduction through field acquisition to postproduction and presentation, as well as for NASA, Sony and Panasonic. He’s currently Technical Director of the Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and Science Media Symposium.