Two women in a small TV studio

Two women and a rotating bowl of fake fruit were the subject of the first live ATSC 3.0 broadcast in North America.

Yet another great thing about attending the NAB Show is watching demonstrations of the very latest TV broadcast technology. Sometimes those trial balloons are dead ends (to mix metaphors), but ATSC 3.0 looks like it could be a keeper. This next-generation digital platform packs more data in the same slice of bandwidth, and it natively supports more descriptive emergency alerts, better surround sound, the possibility of 4K ultra HD signals, and a lot of other nice features. Too bad it’s not compatible with current digital TV tuners.

Remember that the old analog TV standard was NTSC, and that was replaced in the US in 2009 by ATSC, a digital standard that allowed for high-definition TV. That was ATSC 1.0, and now the new 3.0 version is ready for testing.

The NAB Show hosted the first live North American broadcast using the ATSC 3.0 system, with a mini-studio and transmitter at the east end of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s South Hall and a receiver in a special “consumer experience” set of booths at the far west end of the hall.

If you want to dig into most of the details of the event, you should read Chris Tribbey’s account at Broadcasting & Cable. Also, before the show was over, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that he would open the comment period on ATSC 3.0 this coming week. I just have a few more notes to add.

  • The Ultra HD display was underwhelming for me, despite the colorful scene. I think that the display monitor was a little small (maybe 50 inches?) to show off the UHD advantage. Then again, I think that’s a problem with UHD in general; it provides too little benefit at typical screen sizes.
  • Two women stayed at that little table from 8 am to 6 pm Monday, then from 9 to 6 Tuesday and Wednesday. They took short individual breaks (they told me, I never saw one) and chatted and smiled all that time. Amazing stamina in the bright lights.
  • The literal centerpiece of the tableau was a rotating bowl of very fake fruit. How fake? The bananas were blue. The oranges, red apples and green pears looked pretty normal, but the bananas were nowhere near yellow. It was an odd, unexplained choice for folks trying to show off their superior colors.
  • One of the projected uses for ATSC 3.0 is to send encrypted content overnight to a local storage device, allowing unlockable movies on demand. I’m always hesitant about using free airwaves to send pay-TV content, but that doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, that’s always been a selling point with TabletTV, the one-piece over-the-air DVR that’s still hanging in there. (Its FAQ page mentions “In the future, TabletTV may offer ad-supported and video-on-demand services”.) Let’s see how that works out.

Google's president of global partnerships Daniel Alegre during a speech at the NAB Show

Google President of Global Partnerships Daniel Alegre at the NAB Show

I’m back from the NAB Show, worth the trip as always. As I adjusted to the stingy oxygen supply of Denver air, I wondered whether I heard Google’s President of Global Partnerships Daniel Alegre correctly yesterday morning. Turns out that I did.

The setting was so tame – a closing keynote on the subject “Transforming TV – VR, Cloud and the Multi-Screen Revolution.” Through the first quarter of Alegre’s remarks, he concentrated mostly on reassuring the half-filled room of broadcasters that TV is not dead or dying. Then Alegre slipped in the first of his surprises. “Today, I’m excited to announce that, coming soon, Google Search will have live TV listings,” he said. (For the rest of those surprises, mostly about TV ads, see Alegre’s blog post, or you can watch the whole keynote here.)

Wait a minute! Did Google bury its announcement of a new product in the middle of a speech on the last full day of the convention? Dieter Bohn of The Verge heard that too, writing “IMDB and whatever you’re using as a TV guide are getting some competition.”

This could be really big news in this niche. There are only a handful of companies behind the TV listings that get shuffled, reformatted and fed to various online, print, and device displays. Of course Google’s data and advertising background would make it a natural to swoop in and take over.

I’ve got a lot more to share with you the next few days as I decompress from the show, including some virtual reality and a live test of the next broadcast standard. Stay tuned.

VIZIO SmartCast P-Series 55” Class Ultra HD HDR Home Theater DisplayVizio announced a couple of weeks ago that it’s selling some great looking Ultra HD sets with Google Cast (previously ChromeCast) built in and a nifty Android-based remote, but without ATSC over-the-air TV tuners. As a result, Vizio can’t call them TVs, so they’re “home theater displays” instead.

(It reminds me that when I shop for a monitor for my desktop computer, I typically keep looking until I find one that includes a TV tuner. The price is about the same, and being able to watch TV comes in handy now and then. But I digress.)

If you love free OTA TV the way I do, this is a little scary. As Jared Newman pointed out at TechHive, these sets are being actively marketed as “tuner-free,” as if tuners were an inconvenient nuisance. When Newman asked Vizio about that, “Vizio cited its own surveys, which found that less than 10 percent of customers were watching over-the-air broadcasts.” The company also said something about simplified menus. Based on computer monitor/TV prices, I’d also bet the tuner might cost Vizio as much as $5.

Considering the growth in cord-cutting, Vizio’s move away from tuners might seem strange. Then again, folks who forgo pay TV because they’re barely staying above water aren’t likely to buy the latest Ultra HD set. As long as this trend doesn’t spread to less expensive sets, it’ll probably amount to nothing, but for now, I’m keeping an eye on it.

Girl in baseball cap watching old TV next to stuffed animal

© DesignPicsInc / Depositphotos.com

The opening week of the major league baseball season is here at last. Not so coincidentally, Adweek ran an interview with MLB commissioner Rob Manfred addressing the sport’s fading appeal to young viewers. “MLB has the oldest median TV audience at 56 years, compared to 49 for NFL viewers and 41 for NBA fans,” Adweek’s Tim Baysinger wrote.

Let’s blend in another report. Mike Farrell wrote in Multichannel News that “Canadian research company Convergence Consulting Group estimated that 1.13 million U.S. TV households cut the cord in 2015, about four times the pace of 2014.” That annual report also said that the pay TV universe is contracting, but the group of cord-cutters and cord-nevers (who have never paid for TV) will grow by over 2 million households in 2016.

Now MLB has one great advantage – its comprehensive streaming package, MLB.TV, available to almost anyone at a reasonable price. Its trouble, which I don’t see it addressing, is that it markets itself only to serious fans. That is, if you’re not already a baseball fan, you won’t get much opportunity to get hooked on the sport.

Update: Yet another way MLB is reaching out is with a free daily game streaming on Yahoo Sports. That’s a nice gesture to cord-cutters, but again it requires a preexisting desire to watch baseball games.

I thought of all this as I surveyed the upcoming sports broadcasts as shown by my Tablo. Looking out over the next couple of weeks of over-the-air TV, there will be NBA games, NHL games, golf, auto racing, four soccer leagues, and even a Legends Football League game. But no baseball whatsoever for its opening weeks. Is it any wonder that cord-nevers embrace other sports?

My solution to this problem is to go back to what made those 56-year-olds MLB fans in the first place. Require each team to simulcast six games a month over the air. That roughly matches what a lot of teams did 40 or 50 years ago, showing a few road trips a month on local independent stations.

All of those games are already being covered by local pay-TV networks, so the only new cost is the loss of exclusivity for those 36 out of 155 or so non-national games. But those free broadcasts become a great selling tool for the teams where they can promote upcoming home games, sell more MLB.TV subscriptions, and generally get viewers to fall in love with the local players. Kids in broadcast-only homes will find these games and might start watching baseball when the NBA season is over.

If you want folks to buy your product, you’ve got to give them a taste of it. If MLB wants to get serious about attracting new fans, it’s going to have to get back to its old model of giving a taste away for free.

In the aftermath of CES, I mentioned that I picked up three new indoor TV antennas. Now that I’ve put them to the test, I have some surprises to share with you.

Four different TV antennas ready to testFirst, a few notes about the testing. Since digital TV reception is pretty much a pass/fail proposition, I used the signal-to-noise ratio readings from my indispensable HDHomeRun networked tuner, expressed through the Hdhomerun (sic) Signal Meter app. Those SNR numbers tell me how well the antenna is working, and symbol quality readings tell me whether I’d be able to view the channel. Most of the over-the-air channels that broadcast to FreeTVBlog World Headquarters come from the west-northwest, although a few OTA channels of interest come from the north. Primary testing took place just inside a west-facing window.

As one baseline, a ran a quick set of readings from my rooftop Cable Cutter antenna. I installed it carefully to pick up the weak northern signals while keeping the primary WNW signals; those WNW SNR numbers are a little less than optimum as a result. Then I turned to the west window and my indoor champion: the HomeWorX HW110AN. Flat against the window, the HomeWorX posted SNR numbers as good as the rooftop for the WNW channels except for the three Denver channels that still use VHF.

Next up was the Cable Cutter Mini, also from HD Frequency. Because of its lineage, I expected great things from the Mini, but the results were underwhelming. Flat against the window, the Mini handled VHF 9 better than the HomeWorX but was weaker on 7 and 13. Then I had an inspiration. Turns out that the Mini’s SNR improved greatly when I held it perpendicular to the window. I went back to the HomeWorX and saw the same thing: positioned like an old-style pointy yagi antenna, these smaller antennas could pick up VHF signals okay even though they were designed more for UHF reception.

Another CES antenna that shouldn’t really count was included in the box for the Aura, an Android- and Kodi-based OTA receiver that I’m looking forward to reviewing soon. The little telescoping stick is a lot like the compact antenna I bring along with my laptop tuner on road trips. The Aura’s antenna picked up the strongest stations, and would make a decent starter for someone disconnecting cable, but it wasn’t in the same league as the others.

(Speaking of telescoping antennas, an even smaller one is attached to my TabletTV T-Pod unit. An apples-to-apples comparison isn’t possible, but it also failed to tune in Channel 9 from the window. TabletTV would be better with an external antenna jack, and it would also be better with movie listings with titles instead of “Movie,” but I digress.)

My final CES antenna was the Magic Stick TV, and my expectations were low. As you might guess from its company’s name, PVC Antenna Inc., this is an indoor-outdoor antenna sealed in about 10 inches of narrow PVC pipe. The Magic Stick TV’s slick packaging and its glib CES presenter had me thinking infomercial bait. When I held the antenna lengthwise against the window, its VHF numbers were similarly unimpressive, but pointing it like a boom microphone, I got even better VHF numbers than the other two indoor antennas had delivered at their perpendicular best. Shifting back to lengthwise, its UHF numbers matched the other two, and in one corner of my office I could just barely pick up those northern channels. If I had to pick among the three, the Magic Stick TV would be the winner.

Although the Magic Stick TV’s performance was unexpected, my biggest surprise was that the position of the antenna, both relative to windows and to its presenting angle, changes reception much more than the antenna itself. The top three that I tested posted identical numbers on most channels when positioned perfectly. Depending on which channels you care about and how much you’re willing to fiddle with the antenna, any of these three should work fine. Based on its low price, I’d still recommend the HomeWorX.