TV Airwaves Evolve

The television broadcast spectrum, the oldest source of programming, is getting a spiffy new broadcast standard but may suffer from regulatory changes that would consolidate ownership and dilute local programming.

ATSC 3.0, the eventual new broadcast standard for the U.S., is already coming to South Korea in LG TVs. Koreans will be getting Ultra HD, HDR, and next-generation surround from the airwaves before we do. U.S. consumers are interested, though. A SmithGeiger survey finds that when consumers are informed about ATSC 3.0 features, their likelihood of buying a smart TV rises from 55 percent to 74 percent, and they’re willing to spend $205 more, raising the average selling price to $1,155.

Emergency alerts may suffer under the new ATSC 3.0 broadcast standard despite its hip geotargeting and other features, warns the American Cable Association. Not that the new standard doesn’t do emergency alerts brilliantly—the problem is that it is not backward-compatible with existing ATSC 1.0, and some broadcasters may try to wiggle out of simulcasting requirements. That’s a problem because Americans prefer broadcast TV for emergency alerts over other media by four to one, according to a survey conducted for the National Association of Broadcasters.

The process of TV stations evolving from local institutions to cookie-cutter corporate entities is accelerating under new FCC chair Ajit Pai. He is preparing to loosen the commission’s TV-station cross-ownership rules. The likely result will be fewer companies controlling more stations in what The New York Times is describing as a “deal-making frenzy,” most recently Sinclair broadcasting’s acquisition of 14 New York–area stations for $240 million. Though Sinclair-owned stations include affiliates of multiple networks, they are all required to air “must-run” news content with a conservative bent. During the 2016 campaign season, that included several “exclusive interviews” and other stories favorable to President Trump.

Another blow to localism would be the proposed elimination of the “main studio rule” for TV and radio stations. The 70-year-old rule requires a station to maintain a studio in or near the community it serves. The studio is required to have full-time management and staff, to originate local programming covering local issues, and to accept input from the community. Foes of the main studio rule claim “modern communications” make it a needless regulatory burden. But FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn says stations should have “either boots on the ground or someone there answering the phone to ensure that the public interests are upheld.”

See ATSC 3.0: TV's Next Generation for more information on the new TV broadcast standard.

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Tom Fleischmann claims that several proceedings before the Federal Communications Commission could cause harm to broadcasters’ commitment to localism. The fact is these proceedings will provide broadcast TV stations new opportunities to serve the public with expanded local news, more programming streams and better emergency warnings.

Fleischmann cites claims from the American Cable Association that broadcasters’ request to transition to the ATSC 3.0 standard – also known as the Next Gen TV standard – will lead broadcasters to shirk their emergency alerting responsibilities. Neither he nor ACA could be more mistaken. In fact, the new standard will help improve emergency alerting through geolocated warnings, interactive content such as evacuation maps and the ability to ‘wake up’ devices in the path of danger. Broadcasters take seriously our role as the public’s ‘first informers.’

Fleischmann also bemoans consolidation in the broadcast industry, which is ironic given that local broadcasters are far more regulated than behemoth wireless carriers, pay-TV providers and multiplatform technology companies who are not constrained by media ownership rules. Yet, none of these goliath media companies serve the ‘public interest, convenience and necessity,’ a principle that governs broadcasters’ license to operate. Broadcasters need common-sense media ownership rules that allow them to reinvest cost-savings into newsgathering, afford the most-watched programming and negotiate fairly with much larger media companies.

The main studio rule is one of these outdated FCC rules that does more harm rather than good in today’s media environment. Technology advances allow broadcasters to have a presence in their communities of service without needing a physical facility, which few members of the public even know about. Instead of paying for the upkeep of a rarely visited building, broadcast TV stations can instead invest those resources into local news, community-oriented programming and emergency weather detection.

We agree that the broadcast TV airwaves are evolving. However, we strongly disagree with the premise that this evolution will hurt what makes broadcasters stand out from the crowd – our commitment to localism.

Dennis Wharton
Executive Vice President, Communications
National Association of Broadcasters