Alan Alda accepting the NAB Distinguished Service Award
Alan Alda accepting the 2019 NAB Distinguished Service Award

I’m back from the 2019 edition of the National Association of Broadcasters Show, which I’ve been attending since 2008. Back then, America was just about to switch to HDTV, satellite companies still enjoyed talking about the free-TV stations in their mixes, and the term over-the-top TV hadn’t even been coined yet. Now broadcasters are getting increasingly nervous about their online competitors even as many pin their hopes on yet another TV transition.

NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith provided the keynote, starting off the show with a touch of cognitive dissonance. He said, “My own NAB Show story began a decade ago – almost to this day, in fact – when I spoke at my first show as the new president and CEO.” Except that Smith was off by a year – his first NAB Show keynote was April 12, 2010, about seven months after he got the job. I expect that someone on his team confused his 10th year with a 10-year anniversary.

I truly enjoy Smith’s ability to state seemingly contradictory things without irony or shame. This year he praised TV localism while urging Congress to reduce ownership caps (which tends to reduce the number of locally based stations). And here’s an adjacent-sentence example: “First, modernize outdated broadcast regulations to allow us to compete on a level playing field … And second, increase regulation on the tech industry”. So the government should take a more active role, just not with broadcasters.

Again, Smith does all this with a pleasant speaking voice while making every sentence sound reasonable. He’s obviously a great builder of coalitions, keeping a diverse group of large and small station owners on his side. He puts a likable face on a business that was built on a promise of public service but usually seems more focused on its bottom line.

Alan Alda, this year’s recipient of the NAB Distinguished Service Award, soon followed Smith to the stage. Alda spoke at length about his career and was surprised at the audience applause for PBS’s “Scientific American Frontiers,” his second-longest running TV show. Surprisingly, he didn’t seem to have anything to promote, except perhaps his Clear+Vivid podcast. Maybe he was just promoting better techniques for communication, especially listening. As Alda put it, “I don’t think I’m really listening unless I’m willing to be changed by you.”

And from a viewer’s perspective, that was the best part of the show. Attendance was down a bit, and the show floor seemed a little smaller. Broadcasters seemed especially apprehensive about wireless companies’ upcoming 5G and were eager to get ATSC 3.0 adopted. (Excuse me, the current term is Next-Gen TV.)

A coalition of station groups announced its plans to begin to deploy Next-Gen by the end of 2020. Among the many station owners quoted, I found the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s president/CEO’s remarks the most telling. Chris Ripley said that the new system would give broadcasters a better product “while creating entirely new services to diversify revenue and better serve the public.” That’s the best validation I’ve found so far for my theory of the real goal of Next-Gen TV. I think that some broadcasters want viewers to pay for what they watch. Maybe it’ll be for the 4K version, maybe it’ll be a license to record programs on a DVR, but my guess is that the next broadcast standard will include digital rights management and a subscription mechanism unless Congress or the FCC steps in.

There was a smattering of Next-Gen equipment on display, but little that will be usable by typical viewers even when experimental TV stations get started. In general, there just wasn’t much viewer-focused news on the show floor. That makes a lot of sense; the NAB Show is to viewers what a zookeeper convention would be to the animals. The attendees are there to serve viewers, but viewers don’t contribute directly to the bottom line.

Gordon Smith’s reminiscence led me to look back at my longer history of NAB Show visits. Every time, the show staff have treated me as a welcome friend, but lately I’ve been finding fewer relevant needles in this haystack. If you’re a broadcaster or a filmmaker, or if you have something to sell to anyone in those categories, the NAB Show is a great party and wonderful opportunity. If you’re a TV viewer, or you want to learn what’s going to benefit viewers, not so much.

You know, I never did get around to telling you about the new over-the-air TV antennas that Televes gave me at CES. Let’s fix that now.

Televes over-the-air TV antenna on a rooftop mount
Here is the antenna that beat my old HD Frequency Cable Cutter

You might remember that at CES this year, I met Javier Ruano, GM of OTA antenna maker Televes. Here’s one of the benefits of attending the last day of a convention: Ruano offered to let me try out some of his display models if I dropped by when he closed the Televes booth. When I came to collect, there was an impromptu demonstration that these antennas are much harder to take apart than they are to assemble, then I was on my way. I shipped the largest via FedEx and brought a couple more as carry-ons on my Southwest flight home.

CES is in January, and FreeTVBlog’s World Headquarters of Denver is known for snow. We got an extra helping of the white stuff this winter, which was great news for skiers and the water supply but made it difficult to time a safe trip to the roof to test the new Televes Ellipse against my incumbent, an excellent Cable Cutter antenna from HD Frequency. While I waited for a rooftop opportunity, I descended to the basement’s indoor antenna torture chamber.

There in the world of foundation walls and casement windows, over-the-air TV reception is really tough. So that’s where I like to try out various indoor “solutions” to see which ones might be sensitive enough to pick up the local transmitters 17 miles away.

Let me mention here again that TV signal quality measurements vary quite a bit from hour to hour, sometimes minute to minute. And that’s on top of the variation that can be introduced by different coax cables, even those that seem identical. My testing technique was strictly A/B, swapping one antenna for another while keeping everything else the same. My measuring tool was the amazing HDHomeRun receiver, which reports signal strength, signal-to-noise ratio, and the most important, signal quality.

Televes Bexia indoor antenna
The Bexia by Televes

I could get into the weeds here with all the measurements of Televes’ Bexia vs. the square RCA antenna that Dish sent over during one of its retransmission spats. (It’s something like this one.) I’ll spare you the channel by channel quality numbers. Although a few of its frequencies showed lower numbers than the amplified RCA square, the Bexia pulled in a wider range of usable channels from its awful position by the ground-level casement window. I wish I could link to a product page, but the Bexia appears to be a prototype, so all I could find was a YouTube video.

Weeks passed, and a week of warm weather invited me to the roof. After the difficulty of taking it apart at CES, I was surprised that the Ellipse really did snap together in less than a minute. Up on the roof, the only installation drawback was that the centered coax connector lined up with the mounting pole; an connector on one side or the other would have worked better. It made the connection more awkward, but with a 7/16-inch wrench, anything is possible.

Measured against the old champ, the Ellipse’s VHF was a bit weaker though definitely good enough. (I later learned that was because the CES demo unit was also a prototype, without the VHF element of the finished product.) The Ellipse’s advantage was on some UHF channels that had been plagued with dropoffs because of signal reflections. Those signals were now continuous. A few of the strong UHF channels showed lower SNR percentages than the Cable Cutter produced, but the weaker UHF signals came in stronger.

That prototype is still mounted on the roof, and the family is pleased. The flat HD Frequency Cable Cutter is well suited for both indoor and outdoor use, but in a way it’s kind of nice to once again have a rooftop antenna that looks like a TV antenna.

To talk about my visit to CES* this year, I need to get into some history. This blog started as FTABlog, supporting, which still provides the best list of Ku-band satellite free-to-air (unscrambled, legal) TV channels available in North America. Because of that perspective, my relationship with CES has changed over the years.

*The official name has changed more often than you might expect. It launched as the Consumer Electronics Show, then officially switched to the International CES, and is now just CES. Every year, its press releases provide guidance on exactly how its name should be used in articles. But I digress.

When I first started attending the show, it was just before the Great Recession and satellite free-to-air equipment was still on the exhibit floor. For a couple of years after the economic downturn, some past and future attendees stayed home, and hotel rooms were easier to find. CES has been growing ever since, and the days of inexpensive rooms look like ancient history. FTA satellite equipment vendors vanished, but for a while there were plenty of TV pioneers to interview. In past years, I saw over-the-air streamer Tablo TV in the startup Eureka Park and the launch of Sling TV, the first over-the-top provider, on the main floor. Now OTT streaming video is mainstream, and there’s just not that much left to interest free-TV fans.

Don’t get me wrong. CES remains an amazing experience, and I heartily recommend that everyone should attend at least one. Even in a haystack of incremental advances and knockoffs, there are always at least a few amazing innovations. If you want to network with other technology professionals, CES is a great opportunity. But this year had less dazzle and less TV than in past years.

Because of my other projects, there have been years when I’ve spent only a single long day at CES, and that’s just not enough time to see everything. This year my schedule restricted me to the last two days of CES, which was also suboptimal. The final day is deliberately shorter, and many exhibitors begin wrapping up even before that early close.

(Three days at CES may be too overwhelming for some attendees, including me. In my experience, the best possible CES visit is the middle two days. If your goal is to be the very first to see new cutting-edge products, then join the crowd that comes for just the first two days.)

The highlights of my visit, as always, were the people I met. Theodore Head, who runs SiliconDust, makers of the excellent HDHomeRun over-the-air TV receivers, talked about plans for the Scribe Duo, a more integrated DVR to make life easier for new users. (I’ve often said that the most successful consumer electronics should be as easy to use as a toaster, which leaves out all FTA satellite equipment I’ve ever seen.) Javier Ruano, GM of OTA antenna maker Televes, showed off some prototypes, of which I’ll write much more next time.

I’ll leave you with some photos of the 2019 CES. I haven’t decided whether I’ll be back next January, but when I look at the pictures, they make me smile enough to want to return.

RCA Antenna on a fake window at CES

At the RCA booth, a guy explained that a huge percentage of antennas sold at retail and soon returned had nothing wrong with them but had just been incorrectly placed. That was the genesis for this RCA antenna with a built-in signal meter. It also works with an RCA phone app that suggests which direction to point for the best chance at receiving particular TV stations.

Rows of phone chargers at CES

Previous CES shows (is that like “ATM machine”?) featured an amazing array of cell phone cases in a variety of styles from a variety of vendors. This CES was different – there were more cell phone chargers than cases. Plus plenty of battery-enhanced cases.

A huge, wide video wall showing an ocean wave at CES

The usual half-dozen stunning displays at CES was down to maybe one this year: this amazing, wide, curved video wall that was so much more impressive in person.

TV Jockstrap® booth at CES

Tired of sports spoilers in the TV bottom crawl? Maybe you need a TV Jockstrap®, my CES Goofy Award winner.

Woman with headset at CES giving presentation to empty aisle

Finally, my favorite CES 2019 photo. As I walked the exhibit floor in its final hour, I encountered a woman giving a full presentation to literally no one. She rolled through the whole spiel to the empty aisle before her. It was time to leave.

NHK's 8K Theatre at the NAB ShowBroadcasters gathered at the NAB Show this week spent a lot of time talking about the next generation of TV: ATSC 3.0. But what about the generation after that? At least a couple of exhibitors were proud to show off that they were already capable of handling 8K video, with 16 times as many pixels as a current HDTV picture.

The NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) area included several home settings with 8K displays, though the most exciting part was its 8K Theater. Even projected at wall size, the video looked more like a window than a movie.

Today I watched an 8K demonstration at Digital Projection’s meeting room as it showed off its new laser projector. As with NHK, the resolution was amazing.

Despite these market-ready pieces, I’m guessing it’ll be years before anyone in the US watches live 8K programming at home. Based on NHK’s info, moving these files in real time requires 10 Gb Ethernet. I guess an 8K movie could trickle in to a local storage device for later viewing, so maybe that’s the next step in the process. However it shakes out, at a convention full of 4K buzz, it was nice to see something even better.

Android TV screen showing ATSC 3.0 app listing

They told me that Sony has written an Android TV app for viewing ATSC 3.0 over-the-air, but there aren’t any ATSC 3.0 dongles yet to make it work

Television’s future was on display as the NAB Show exhibit hall opened today. Or I should say television’s futures, because different vendors had different visions of what broadcast TV will look like once everyone uses ATSC 3.0.

Most there had at least adopted the user-friendly phrase “next-gen TV” to describe the coming IP-based system of transmitting more types of information more efficiently than the current ATSC 1 system. What will those new features look like? No one knows for sure, which is why so many are trying to get out in front now throwing their favorite ideas at the wall to see whether it will stick.

It seems likely that some kind of civil defense-style warning system will be included; tornado warnings and the like are arguably the most important duty for local broadcast stations. I worry that mission creep will eventually be like the Amber alerts on my phone, keeping me on the lookout for a given green Dodge pickup in case I should see it in my living room.

A scarier outcome comes from the analytics info that broadcasters could be harvesting over the internet, showing which TVs and devices were watching which shows for how long. In theory, this could mean that a station could require user registration before a device could view its programming. Or someone could compile a list of Rosanne viewers or Democracy Now viewers. A guy from one of the labs gently suggested that all these new capabilities would merely be used for broadcasters’ traditional free public service, though he agreed that he didn’t know exactly how it would all shake out.

Interior of the autonomous vehicle at NAB, with the ATSC 3.0 receiver

Autonomous vehicles are also going to be part of the future, and the NAB Show had a joint demonstration of a driverless van displaying an ATSC 3.0 feed being broadcast as a local test. The van’s attendant worked for the self-driving vehicle folks, and I guess he was hoping to impress the TV news critters because he ignored the TV receiver while chatting endlessly about the van’s features as it navigated its short, simple, pre-programmed loop between exhibit halls. As I watched, the ATSC 3.0 video froze or broke up at least a half dozen times in less than two minutes. I still don’t understand the fascination with getting broadcast TV working for moving vehicles, but with all the attention it gets, someone’s going to get it all worked out one day. Maybe.