FCC NextGen TV task force will strategize shutdown of ATSC 1.0, Sinclair says

Executives at Sinclair Broadcast Group on Wednesday said a task force currently being developed by federal regulators and key industry stakeholders will chart a course for the eventual shutdown of broadcast signals using the ATSC 1.0 standard.

The comments were made by Sinclair CEO Chris Ripley and Chief Operating Officer Rob Weisbord during the company's first quarter earnings call on Wednesday, with the executives saying the conversion of digital signals has the potential to unlock significant revenue opportunities for broadcasters in the future.

Currently, television stations across the country broadcast their over-the-air signals using the ATSC 1.0 standard after the federal government mandated the shutdown of analog television transmissions in 2009. Sinclair has been one of the primary broadcast companies overseeing the development and rollout of the next-generation digital broadcast standard, ATSC 3.0, which also goes by the consumer brand "NextGen TV."

NextGen TV signals are already available in around 70 television markets across the country, with recent launches taking place in San Francisco, Rochester and Des Moines. In most markets, one or two television stations serve as a "lighthouse" that simulcasts the main feeds of ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox network affiliates among others.

In all areas, broadcasters have committed to maintaining their ATSC 1.0 signals while marketing NextGen TV as the future of over-the-air television. Earlier this year, industry officials urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to form a public-private partnership to help address some pain points associated with the development and adoption of NextGen TV, and to help promote the standard to consumers. Last month, FCC Chairperson Jessica Rosenworcel confirmed the agency was creating that task force.

On Wednesday, Ripley revealed the task force will have another goal: Eliminating the current digital broadcast standard in full favor of NextGen TV.

"Sunsetting the [ATSC] 1.0 signals will be a key area of engagement for the task force," Ripley affirmed. He offered no timetable on when ATSC 1.0 signals would be shut down, but it could be years into the future, as few consumer television sets and aftermarket set-top boxes offer NextGen TV-compatible tuners, which are required to receive the signals.

Advocates of NextGen TV, including Sinclair, have long touted the consumer benefits of the standard: New compression technologies allow broadcasters to distribute ultra high-definition video and multichannel surround sound. The standard also allows broadcasters to offer more over-the-air television feeds and wireless datacast capabilities like hyper-local emergency alert messages, weather forecasts and traffic reports.

But the benefits to broadcasters are numerous as well. Sinclair and others say NextGen TV allows television stations and networks to distribute personalized advertisements to viewers, putting broadcasters on an even playing field with streaming services that already generate revenue through connected TV ads. The standard also allows broadcasters to encrypt their signals, which could help prevent content piracy and restrict viewership to an intended TV market.

On Wednesday, Sinclair executives said shutting down ATSC 1.0 signals in favor of NextGen TV has another benefit: Broadcasters can reallocate spectrum set aside for ATSC 1.0 transmissions for other purposes.

"When you sunset [ATSC] 1.0, you open up a significant amount of spectrum capacity that really unlocks the revenue possibilities on [ATSC] 3.0 in terms of higher-quality and interactive programming, and also datacasting opportunities around things like enhanced GPS, [Internet-connected] devices, low latency sports and mobile video," Ripley said. "These are all excellent use cases that will yield significant economic opportunities."

Weisbord pointed to a study by BIA Advisory Services that said broadcasters could see $10 billion in revenue by 2030 through the transition to NextGen TV.

“We can’t lose sight of, once ATSC 1.0 gets sunsetted, what that revenue potential is,” Weisbord affirmed.