NEXTGEN TV’s CES sales pitch: strength in numbers, if not names

LAS VEGAS—NEXTGEN TV has quietly landed on a non-trivial share of new sets, but you wouldn’t have known it from the louder exhibits at CES 2023 here.

In press conferences and on the show floor, companies talked up other TV features—interfaces to navigate a Pay TV 3.0 world, 8K resolution, even NFT shopping—but not this upgrade to over-the-air reception.

Hours of browsing TV-vendor exhibits the Las Vegas Convention Center yielded only one mention of NEXTGEN: a Hisense “Featured Technologies" display that gave a shout-out to the standard formally known as ATSC 3.0.

But new figures from the Consumer Technology Association show 3.2 million NEXTGEN sets shipped last year, 8% of all TVs shipped. The Arlington, Va., group that produces CES estimates that almost 5 million NEXTGEN TVs will ship to dealers in 2023, 12% of the total; by 2025, the share should hit 50%.

“It's actually the fastest growing technology in TV right now,” said Pearl TV managing director Anne Schelle in an interview Saturday.

That progress has happened without a federal requirement to adopt NEXTGEN and despite only four TV vendors selling NEXTGEN sets. LG, Samsung and Sony introduced their first such models in 2020, while Hisense joined them in 2022.

Pearl’s CES booth included one hardware item that this consortium of broadcasters hopes will win over other manufacturers: a MediaTek reference board featuring a NEXTGEN tuner that they can can build into cheaper sets.

“You're going to start seeing the other manufacturers come in 2023 in a big way, largely because of the MediaTek board,” Schelle said.

An industry analyst called MediaTek’s support necessary but not necessarily sufficient.

“MediaTek is the #1 smart TV silicon platform with over 60% global market share, so its support is a prerequisite for mass adoption of any new standard,” emailed Avi Greengart, president and lead analyst, Techsponential. “However, without a federal mandate, it is still up to individual manufacturers to determine whether it makes sense for them to adopt the chips that support the latest tuner technology and the software stack on top of it that will make it do anything useful.”

Another corner of the exhibit showed off a set of add-on tuners for existing sets, a business that Pearl aims to accelerate with a FastTrack accessory-certification program announced in October.

The head of the company behind one of the few external tuners to have reached the market—the $249.95 ZapperBox M1, shipped last July—said keeping older TVs current with NEXTGEN was central to his sales pitch.

“You should be buying a futureproof box,” CEO Gopal Miglani said Thursday. He said the ZapperBox’s software-defined radio should improve its reception over time: “We get new firmware from the Sony silicon people, we put it in, we upgrade the tuner.”

The ranks of stations broadcasting in ATSC 3.0 has steadily grown since the first official over-the-air signals went live in Vegas in May of 2020. With the addition of Miami days before CES, the standard is now on the air in 62 markets and covers more than 50% of U.S. viewers.

Each local launch requires careful choreography by broadcasters: Usually, one station hosts every other station’s ATSC 3.0 signals in return for one of those competitors hosting its ATSC 1.0 broadcast.

“We wouldn't be negotiating with each other in all of these markets if we didn't have any intention of making this work,” said Shawn Makhijani, a senior vice president of business development at NBCUniversal Media, at a CES panel Saturday.

The Miami debut also has the PBS affiliate delivered as an IP stream using NEXTGEN’s datacasting capabilities. Makhijani endorsed this ability to intermingle distribution technologies: “The consumer will never know that NBC, they're getting it through the broadcast airwaves, and PBS, they're getting it through the internet.”

Speaking on the same panel, Gray Television president and co-CEO Pat LaPlatney said NEXTGEN’s data features also support geography-specific custom content, citing Gray’s Tallahassee station and its reach into southern Georgia.

“We can essentially assemble a newscast almost on the fly,” he said. “The content you see in Tallahassee won't be what you see in Valdosta [Ga.].”

Makhijani then offered a plug for NEXTGEN’s support for dynamic ad insertion and other targeted advertising tools.

“Because it is essentially digital, you can do DAI ads,” he said. “The dirty secret of broadcast television is, we have some of the best content that advertisers want.”

Greengart voiced doubt that customers would find those features too exciting: “That’s certainly the low hanging fruit from a broadcaster’s perspective, but data and personalized ads do not drive consumer demand.”

One once-promising attempt to build a video service off NEXTGEN’s IP foundation, the Meridian, Ida.-based service Evoca, shut down Dec. 31 after exhausting its funds.

NEXTGEN can also deliver HDR, which Schelle should happen this year. But while it can also support 4K over the air, in most markets that won’t happen until broadcasters free up the needed frequencies by shutting off ATSC 1.0. Schelle declined to speculate about that, noting that the FCC is conducting an inquiry about how long stations should be required to simulcast in both digital standards.

But until stations see enough viewers on ATSC 3.0 and few enough on ATSC 1.0, they may hesitate to make a switch that will let them broadcast content with no parallel in the old technology.

Or as Greengart put it: “the usual technology/content chicken-and-egg problem.”