ATSC-3 And Single Frequency Networks
ATSC-3 and SFN’s may be the just what broadcasting needs to prosper in the future. Certainly there are smart and dedicated women and men working hard to make these technologies a reality. I would offer a few cautions – (1) acquiring sites, building multiple towers in each market and enabling consumer reception of a not-backwards-compatible new standard won’t be cheap, (2) enabling better and “hassle-free” over-the air reception inadvertantly could could undermine Retrans revenues from cable, satellite and telcos and (3) it is by no means certain that smartphones and tablets ever will be engineered to receive frequencies in the broadcast band.
The first point needs no explanation. The ATSC-3/SFN vision comes with major costs. Of course, those costs may be worth it – if they enable significant new revenues.
The second point (the danger of undermining Retrans revenues) hit me when I read this quote from Sinclair’s Mark Aitken (for whom I have enormous respect) describing the ATSC-3/SFN consumer experience in Communication Daily on March 23 :
“Imagine how simple it becomes for a consumer to go on Amazon, order a TV, the drone drops it off on your porch two hours later, and you grab it and take it out of the box and plug it into the wall and you’ve got television. There’s no climbing up on the peak of the roof or into the attic, but you’ve elevated the power in a market in simple embedded antennas, and suddenly you allow broadcast television hassle-free.”
My own view is that broadcasters would be better off if their second revenue stream from cable, satellite and telcos was based on pure copyright. But there is no question that broadcasters need and deserve a second revenue stream to support their programming services. If ATSC-3/SFN “hassle-free” over-the-air reception causes the consumer in Mark’s example (and other consumers) to “cut the cord”, the station would lose Retrans fees. Maybe that loss could be offset by other new revenues, but the potential loss should be a part of every station’s due diligence about ATSC-3/SFN.
Finally, the vision of offering programming and data services to mobile devices needs to be tempered by the realities of smartphone and tablet technology. In the upcoming Incentive Auction, there is a reason why the FCC needs to create a compact contiguous band for the new wireless frequencies – a reason why the FCC needs to “repack” broadcasters.
Mobile devices are built to receive specific frequency bands pursuant to standards developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project – a worldwide consortium of carriers, chip makers and device manufacturers. The physical limit of antenna size in smartphones constrains the size of the receivable frequency bands. It is expected that mobile devices will be built to receive the frequencies in the new wireless band. Absent a prolonged and uncertain effort to lobby carriers, chip makers, device manufacturers and 3GPP, those mobile devices will not receive transmissions from broadcasters operating in the new broadcast band.
I look forward to watching the progress of the ATSC-3/SFN initiative and I hope that it results in great new opportunities for broadcasters. At the same time, broadcasters need to be fully informed about the challenges that lie down this road. Since the deadline for broadcasters to register for the Incentive Auction has long passed, and the window to register preferred options has closed, I thought it safe to offer my thoughts without anyone thinking that they are related to the auction.
The Ansin/NBC Dispute
The dispute between NBC and Ed Ansin is unfortunate on many levels. In the early, struggling, days of the Fox Network, there was no more supportive and constructive Affiliate than Ed Ansin. As head of Fox Network Distribution I worked closely with Ed and his colleague Bob Leider at WSVN, Miami. In those early Fox days, the older Networks ridiculed us, we burned through money like confetti and many doubted that we would succeed. But Ed and Bob never wavered. They carried our shows in pattern (not all Affiliates did), they generously promoted our shows, they offered valuable and constructive advice and they delivered big numbers to our fledgling Network when we needed them.
Because of differing self-interest, Networks/Affiliate conflict is a fact of life and always has been. But those same self-interests are what keep Networks and Affiliates together. The Networks provide Affiliates with the best programs and a strong identity. The Affiliates provide the Networks with the best distribution in television – no other distribution platform is even close. When I was at ABC there was no broadcast station available to us in the Salinas/Monterey market. So, we “affiliated” with a local cable channel created by Time Warner Cable complete with a local newscast. The ABC ratings in that market were about 1/3 of the national average. Later ABC affiliated with the D2 signal of the local Hearst broadcast station and the ratings came back up.
Today, Ed Ansin’s WHDH in Boston is a ratings powerhouse for NBC and those ratings cannot be taken for granted. It is not my place to second guess NBC’s business decisions. The people running the NBC Network and the NBC Owned Stations are as talented, experienced and decent as anyone in the industry. This is just a note to say from my own personal experience (1) broadcast Affiliates are the best distribution, (2) Ed Ansin in particular knows how to generate big ratings and (3) if I was running a Network today, I would want him as a part of my distribution platform.