ATSC 3.0 Is Coming, And Maybe It’s Not All Good

I’ve been struggling to summarize what I feel about ATSC 3.0, the upcoming broadcast TV standard. On one hand, it will enable reception in motion (perhaps in phones?), superb early warning capabilities, and possibly 4K video. But on the other hand…

Fortunately, Wayde Robson at Audioholics has released an excellent long article describing a lot of the stuff I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks. Here are some highlights:

ATSC 3.0 is IP-based, like the internet. It’ll need a new tuner, but we’ve got a few years to prepare for that. Besides, that antenna and tuner won’t need to be near the TV (now a monitor) because it will be able to feed the signal over the home network. And since it’s IP-based, its possibilities will be open-ended. As FCC Chairman Ajit Pai put it:

“Imagine a world in which TV broadcasts of your favorite show or new programs were delivered in Ultra High Definition and immersive audio. Imagine a world in which programming was hyperlocalized and broadcasters could deliver niche content to specific geographic areas within a station’s signal areas. Imagine a world that offered Americans with disabilities far better accessibility options for experiencing broadcast television. Imagine a world in which every consumer smartphone could serve as an over-the-air programming device.”

Then Robson gets around to the dark side. “(I)t’s unlikely ATSC 3.0 will result in any long-term gain for free access to digital entertainment,” he writes. “In fact, ATSC 3.0 opens the door to fully authenticated, tiered broadcast services. … the next generation of TV will be hungry for new ways to get paid.”

That’s part of what I worry about. What if every tuner has to be registered and kept online, the better to target advertisements and reap viewing data? What if some sub-channels or even major networks begin demanding a paid subscription? What if every show includes DRM to prevent piracy, with the side-effect that all third-party OTA DVRs (think Tablo) have nothing to record?

One of the major players successfully pushing for quick adoption of ATSC is Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which has a long history of serving its shareholders. As FierceCable put it in January, “Sinclair and (its subsidiary) One Media are considering multiple ways of monetizing the data captured by ATSC 3.0 Next Gen-enabled devices.” The industry is rushing to adopt the new standard, but I worry that cord-cutting free-TV viewers aren’t who they have in mind.