Is Next Gen TV Too Late for Broadcast TV?

People love free-with-ads, but local TV doesn’t have time to lose.

With streaming prices reaching record levels and consumers rediscovering the benefits of free-with-ads TV-watching, this ought to be a great time for TV stations’ transition to free 4K broadcasting. Are they missing the boat?

In this issue:

  • Next Gen TV explained

  • It’s great if you could get it

  • Except the bottlenecks are everywhere

  • A missed opportunity for TV?

What is Next Gen TV?

This isn’t the first time the Stream Report has talked about Next Gen TV. But that was a little bit ago and new insights and information pop up every day, so let’s give it another spin.

Back in 2017, the US Federal Communications Commission formally approved new over-the-air TV broadcasting standards. Called Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC) 3.0, the new standard would make broadcast TV competitive with streaming.

Since A-T-S-C-Three-Point-Oh doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, the industry decided to punch things up by branding it “Next Gen TV”.

A more competitive TV experience

Back in the early 2000s, the high-definition trend was well underway:

  • 2003: Cable companies began serving up HD channels

  • 2006: The two-year battle between Blu-ray discs and HD DVD begins

  • 2007: Netflix begins streaming followed by Hulu and others

Broadcasters’ standard definition analog service wasn’t competitive. ATSC was the answer. In 2009, the US Federal Communications Commission enforced the mandatory transition to digital, bringing US broadcasters to relative parity with cable, physical media, and those weird streaming companies.

Only fourteen years after their digital transition, broadcasters are falling behind again. Next Gen TV is broadcast TV’s next-generation come-from-behind strategy that levels the playing field with features consumers expect from a high-quality viewing experience:

  • 4K UHD resolution

  • Frame rates of 60 or 120 frames per second

  • Wide color gamut, high dynamic range (HDR) video quality

  • Dolby Atmos surround sound

  • Dialog enhancement

  • Ad volume leveling

Connected broadcasts for the connected home

The new standard also brings broadcast TV into the internet age. When people connect their Next Gen TV sets to their home internet connection, they can gain access to additional features.

The TVs will have more accurate viewers’ guides, and they will pull bonus content to enhance programs with commentary, interviews, and background information.

However, what has the industry most excited is Next Gen TV’s support for interactive content. To you and me, that sounds like gimmicky pop-ups that nobody really wants. On the other hand, broadcasters see Next Gen TV as a next-generation advertising platform that turns product placement into shopping opportunities.

Next-generation emergency alerts

ATSC 3.0 also has a more noble purpose — improving the nation’s responses to emergencies. Public TV stations already form the backbone of the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS) which pushes alerts to emergency managers and first responders.

When public TV stations transition to ATSC 3.0, the higher-bandwidth signals will let IPAWS send more detailed information to emergency response teams. Tests in North Carolina have shown that the new system will be a more reliable source of situational awareness.

Sounds cool, when can I get it?

Next Gen TV broadcasts may already be available where you live. Las Vegas was the first market to go live in 2020. Over the following years, more TV stations upgraded their systems to support the new standard.

The Next Gen TV promotional group has an availability map that lists nearly 70 markets with at least one station broadcasting Next Gen TV signals. That coverage supports about 60% of the US population. Market penetration could reach 80% by the end of this year.

Of course, there’s “available” and there’s “available”.

When you drill down into the details, you’ll see that those next-generation markets only have a few Next Gen TV stations. What the industry won’t tell you is that only a few stations are broadcasting in 4K — most are simply rebroadcasting their 1080p programming on the new signal.

What’s holding Next Gen TV back?

When the broadcast industry made the move from analog to digital, it did so with the government’s full support. The FCC made the switch mandatory, making major stations cut their analog broadcasts on June 12, 2009. Knowing this would happen, the consumer electronics industry began selling ATSC-compatible TVs years in advance.

That isn’t how the Next Gen TV works. With no mandatory cutoff, everyone is waiting for everyone else to make the first move.

TV stations can’t assume the public has Next Gen TV devices. Even worse, FCC rules require them to keep broadcasting their existing ATSC 1.0 service for at least five years — and maybe longer.

Using the same frequency for two signals creates a bandwidth problem. Stations can’t transmit high definition and 4K broadcasts at the same time. That’s one reason why the Next Gen TV broadcasts are only in high-def.

With sluggish uptake by the broadcasters, TV manufacturers haven’t rushed to add Next Gen TV tuners to their products. Those that have, treat Next Gen TV as a premium feature for their high-end models. None of the top-selling TVs at retailers like Amazon or Best Buy have Next Gen TV tuners.

The retailers themselves aren’t much help. The filters and search functions on their websites don’t have options for Next Gen TV. Consumers have to read specs model by model to find future-compatible TV sets.

Our takeaway: Next Gen TV’s window of opportunity is closing

A few years ago, it looked like ad-free streaming subscription services were going to take over the world. But fragmentation and rising prices have helped consumers re-discover the concept of ad-supported television.

Surveys have found that 69% of consumers use free ad-supported television (FAST) services, including the Roku Channel, Tubi, and Pluto TV. Almost half have recently canceled a streaming subscription to save money.

FAST services are showing up everywhere. Sling TV’s Freestream offers more than 300 channels to reduce subscriber churn. People with smart TVs powered by Google TV have access to more than 800 free-with-ads channels.

And you know what? Free-with-ads is the business model broadcasters have used for more than seventy years. Next Gen TV should be putting broadcasters ahead of the game for the first time this century. Instead, Next Gen TV’s slow progress is shaping up to be a missed opportunity. Broadcasters need to get their act together or they could go the way of radio.

The Watchlist

Never Have I Ever returns for its fourth and final season, available to stream on Netflix today.

Need some delicious treats while you watch all these new releases? Try Goldbelly! This service sends you goodies from restaurants, bakeries, and stores all over the country. Use our link and get $15 off your $50 order.

Tom Holland and Amanda Seyfried star in The Crowded Room on Apple TV+. The limited series drops on Friday, June 9th.

Watch Flamin’ Hot Cheetos come to life in Flamin', burning tongues and staining fingers on Hulu, Friday, June 9th.

Pull out our tap shoes and jazz hands because the Tony’s are upon us. The stage awards ceremonies will air on Paramount+ and CBS, Sunday, June 11th.

Black Mirror is back with even more twists and turns, its sixth season coming to Netflix, Thursday, June 15th.

Paramount+ is taking us on another galactic adventure with Star Trek: Strange New Worlds season 2. The show flies onto screens Thursday, June 15th.

Chris Hemsworth is saving even more lives in Extraction 2, the action sequel hitting Netflix on Friday, June 16th.

Disney+’s newest entry into the MCU, Secret Invasion, shape shifts onto screens, Wednesday, June 21st.

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