Signals for NEXTGEN TV get a little stronger at CES 2022

LAS VEGAS—Two years after a diffused debut at CES, NEXTGEN TV looks to be getting stronger reception among manufacturers and broadcasters—but with viewers, it’s harder to say.

At CES 2022, backers of the broadcast upgrade also known as ATSC 3.0 cited growing vendor support, a wave of debuts of local NEXTGEN broadcasts, and increasing appreciation of the creative and commercial possibilities in its Internet Protocol-based architecture.

“We're seeing terrific progress, given that the standard is only two years out of the gate in the U.S.,” said Madeleine Noland, president of the Advanced Television Systems Committee, in a panel Thursday.

The Consumer Technology Association’s gathering, which returned to Vegas after the pandemic forced an online-only event in 2021, brought news of another manufacturer, the Chinese firm Hisense, joining LG, Samsung and Sony in selling sets with NEXTGEN tuners.

Hisense’s cheapest such model will retail for $799.99, and its exhibit at the Las Vegas Convention Center featured one set airing a local station’s NEXTGEN broadcast.

Samsung’s exhibit, however, did not advertise the format, Sony’s sparse display didn’t feature TVs, and LG boiled down its presence to a stretch of plywood scattered with QR codes for attendees to scan to learn about its products.

Of those vendors, only Sony has made NEXTGEN a standard feature.

“About two years ago, we decided that if we're going to be doing this, we need to be all in,” said Nick Colsey, a vice president at Sony Electronics, during the panel Thursday. “No other TV manufacturer took that approach.”

That’s pushed the starting price for an ATSC 3.0-ready set below $500, which may have contributed to growing shipments that CTA reported this week. The Arlington, Va., trade group estimated that vendors shipped 3 million NEXTGEN sets to dealers in 2021 and would ship 4.5 million in 2022.

Other set vendors, however, remain aloof. At an online press briefing TCL hosted in December, NEXTGEN only came up after one journalist asked about it. TCL marketing rep Brandon Breznick gave a maybe-2023 reply: “We'll see what the content is, what the draw is.”

NEXTGEN broadcasts, meanwhile, now cover 45 markets, per TV Technology’s count, including such recent high-profile additions as Houston, Los Angeles and Washington. Chicago and New York should join those ranks by this summer, ATSC spokesman Dave Arland said Wednesday.

But do buyers of these new sets know these upgraded signals are ready to become part of their viewing habits? That’s harder to tell.

“Few consumers are aware of whether their TV includes support or not,” wrote Brett Sappington, a vice president for the market-research firm Interpret, in an email Friday. “For most, it is an unknown feature somewhere in the settings of their TV.”

Because ATSC 3.0 signals can’t displace ATSC 1.0 signals—the Federal Communications Commission’s 2017 approval of the format required broadcasters to keep first-gen digital broadcasts up for five years after launching next-gen—each market launch can require careful broadcaster coordination. In D.C., this involved Howard University’s PBS affiliate WHUT hosting the four major network affiliates on its own facilities.

NEXTGEN broadcasters are exploring how they might employ its IP-based architecture—and in particular its ability to weave broadcast and online content together, a feature touted multiple times in Thursday’s panel.

Noland, for example, cited a Fox NASCAR broadcast that delivered the dashcam video of a particular driver over the internet, allowing it to be viewed alongside broadcast coverage of the race.

NEXTGEN TV apps such as that Fox feature and the weather and news widgets available in the feed of the Vegas NBC affiliate KSNV rely on web standards that should work on any modern connected TV, regardless of its operating system.

“It's basically an HTML 5 layer,” Sony’s Conley said. “That makes life a lot easier for application developers.”

Finally, broadcasters may be able to profit from targeted ads, a prospect that Noland said viewers should welcome

“I'm not going to buy a truck. I'm not going to buy Bud Lite,” she said of her experience watching the NFL in Boston. “If I was getting ads during the football game for things that I might like, that would be good.”

NEXTGEN TV’s more efficient physical layer and video codec allow broadcasting in 4K HDR, but stations have yet to do that. They’re instead providing such intermediate upgrades as HDR color and audio improvements like Dolby’s Voice + feature, which lets viewers dial up the volume of dialog.

In an interview after the panel, Noland suggested that broadcast 4K would debut as a special-event feature and might demand cooperation among local stations: For example, one that wanted to air the Super Bowl in 4K would have to ask its neighbors to dial down their own signals during the game.

The National Association of Broadcasters is exploring another way to get 4K to broadcast viewers’ screens—combining HD broadcast with a streaming supplement to yield a 4K signal. Noland said that trade group plans to demonstrate this technology at its conference in Vegas this April.

Sappington urged NEXTGEN broadcasters to find a way to make 4K happen.

“Most streaming services charge a premium for 4K,” he said. “Providing free access to 4K content could encourage many consumers to figure out how to make it work on their TVs.”

NEXTGEN can in theory also deliver a more robust signal, but because stations may instead optimize their broadcasts for higher resolution or more data services, advocates at CES 2022 refrained from touting that potential too strongly. “Your mileage may vary,” Arland said.

Whatever features local stations adopt in this flexible standard, they will have to resonate with customers.

“ATSC 3.0 is making initial strides in services and devices,” Sappington wrote. “Winning over consumers is the final, and perhaps most difficult, hurdle.”

In the panel, Noland said much the same thing.

“If it's going to be a market-driven thing, everybody has to have something that is beneficial to them,” Noland said in that panel. She then reiterated that for emphasis in a louder voice: “If it's going to be voluntary, it had better be good.”