Insights is a weekly series featuring entertainment industry veteran David Bloom. It represents an experiment of sorts in digital-age journalism and audience engagement with a focus on the intersection of entertainment and technology, an area that David has written about and thought about and been part of in various career incarnations for much of the past 25 years. David welcomes your thoughts, perspectives, calumnies, and kudos at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @DavidBloom.
The television industry got an up-close look this past week at its imminent future as an interactive medium at the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. The sprawling gathering showcased all kinds of whiz-bang tech and marked the launch of one big joint project demonstrating just how Next Gen TV will work in the real world.
The project is called the Phoenix Model Market. Backed by eight station groups and numerous tech companies, the Model Market represents one of two broadcaster efforts to figure out how to take real-world advantage of the new ATSC 3.0 format behind Next Gen TV. A Univision-owned digital channel, UniMas, is already broadcasting in Phoenix, soon to be joined on the tower by PBS KIDS, which will transmit additional educational materials to children as part of its broadcasts.
A second test project is rolling out this year in Dallas, backed by three more station groups. And back in February, stations in North Carolina and Cleveland broadcast the Winter Olympics in ATSC 3.0, delivering 4K-resolution, High Dynamic Range video, immersive Dolby audio, VOD material and customized ancillary content about athletes, countries and events.
At the same time, consumer-electronics companies such as Vizio used NAB to show off their ATSC 3.0-compatible smart TVs. The built-in receivers can grab over-the-air digital signals from local broadcasters, access additional on-demand and linear programming from each station and even enable interactive, targeted advertising.
NAB also showed off ATSC 3.0’s potential in the future fleets of nearly-here autonomous vehicles.
As I’ve said for a while now, self-driving cars are the next big entertainment venue. After all, if you don’t have to drive, what are you going to do with yourself during that commute? Movies, news, games, productivity apps, music and much more will be available. Who’s going to deliver it, and how?
The broadcasters, whose radio side has been our drive-time companion for decades, think ATSC 3.0 positions them perfectly to deliver all kinds of content to autonomous-vehicle passengers. Even more importantly, they can deliver the ads to pay for it all. The possibilities, now so close to widespread reality, are bracing, as the Phoenix Model Market and other tests are showing.
The real question, however, is whether a hidebound industry can evolve quickly enough to take advantage of it all.
Broadcasters need to move quickly. Major tech companies are spending billions to muscle into the video business. Consolidation is building formidable content powerhouses even among the remaining traditional Hollywood studios and networks. And 5G mobile, also debuting in select markets this year, promises to give AT&T, Verizon, and other phone companies a powerful broadcasting technology of their own (5G’s powerful potential is basically why AT&T is buying Time Warner).
The FCC has been regulating broadcasting in the United States since the Communications Act of 1934, beginning with radio. TV blossomed after World War II. And the business models of local radio and TV broadcasters haven’t changed much during the intervening many years.
For decades, owning the FCC license for a local broadcast station also was really a license to print money.
The networks paid affiliates to carry their programming. To fill in programming holes in the network schedule, you bought syndicated shows like Wheel of Fortune, I Love Lucy, or Seinfeld. To meet your Public Interest license requirements, a station typically ran a highly lucrative local news operation and a smattering of yawn-inducing Sunday-morning public affairs programming. Stations also sold lots of ads to local car dealers and other businesses. Oh, and then they counted their ample piles of money.
Cable TV and its competitors came along in the 1980s to complicate matters by providing many more programming options. But even there, stations used their political influence to force pay-TV providers to carry their local signals, and pay a carriage fee for the privilege.
But now, local broadcasters are about to get into the VOD business. And the niche programming business. And the audience interaction and engagement business. And the ancillary content/halo programming business. And (this is the big one) the targeted, addressable ad business. Turns out, most broadcasters haven’t done any of this stuff. It’s all a million miles mentally from the industry that broadcasters have been for many profitable decades.
So who has been in those businesses? Turns out, it’s in the online world that the broadcasters used to mock as the rascally refuge of selfies, surfing squirrels, and angst-y teen influencers.
It would be a great irony, then, if local TV broadcasters began hiring away smart people from Facebook (maybe a good time to jump that ship), Amazon, YouTube, Twitter, and Snapchat (I hear Snap suddenly has lots of former employees, unfortunately).
But if I’m a local broadcaster (or more likely, given the industry’s consolidation, a broadcaster group) trying to figure out how to maximize my ATSC 3.0 potential, I know where I’m looking for experienced talent. Hello, online.