Who needs antenna TV 3.0? — Industry Voices: Ring

Brian Ring Industry Voices

May her brilliant soul rest in peace. I have great reverence for her. But I’m humbly of the view that the late, great RGB got the 2014 Aereo case wrong. (I’ll get to Locast later.)

I wrote it up at the time. She seemed to feel that eliminating the need to purchase an antenna, climb to your rooftop to install it, and then quite possibly find out it doesn’t work all that well -- eliminating all of that by way of an ingenious technological service -- that this was a “gimmick."

In the words of Barry Diller, antenna-as-a-service would expand the public good of broadcast TV. Free, easy and publicly accessible HD TV station broadcasts over the air are a bedrock of our nation.

But is antenna viewing a big hit with consumers?

A recent datapoint from the Consumer Technology Association (their members sell antennas) showed up in the Wall Street Journal the other day. Headline: “Why Are Antennas Making a Comeback?” Click-bait. The author cited one Covid year of CTA data that antenna sales rose 4% in 2020. First, that’s anemic at best. Second, OK, but how many are in use? Because the Netflix Covid “pull-forward” was the hockey stick story of the year. And my Mohu antenna for the HD transition which I supported -- it hasn’t made it out of the box.

Does anyone watch TV with an antenna? Well, I’ll tell you.

First off, there is some - but not much - data on this question. Nielsen, for example, classifies roughly 13% of households as antenna HHs. (Colin Dixon of nScreenMedia tracked it here.)

But this past quarter Locast, the non-profit ‘locals’ streaming service built by a legal sharp shooter to pass the court’s muster, was forced to shut down. Locast had 3 million registered users who loved local TV and so between all those antennas sold and a strong pool of short-term demand, I had to take a crack at this question.

As it turns out, not too many of us.

Nielsen’s data cited above is already a small number. My evidence is below. Seems to me about 8% of the U.S. internet population uses antenna TV today to get local and national network content. (Direct link to the full report, here: Final Call, Act FAST: Next Gen TV is CTV, No Antenna Needed.)

Let me be clear:

None of this is to suggest that I don’t fully support the antenna 1.0 TV standard today. It’s fantastic for this 8% and I value the fact that we all have free TV from local stations. They produce great, highly viewed content, whether you happen to like it or not.

But 8% is a very small number for the kind of massive government funding that yet-another digital TV transition would no doubt require.

I don’t want to overlook the fact that the broadcasters are as innovative today as they’ve ever been. I salute them.

Just look at the past quarter, year, even several years. Not all their projects are big hits, but they’re launching projects. Sinclair, Nexstar, Hearst and others are involved in multiple aggressive, energized and inspired initiatives.

They are creating nationalized brands, like Nexstar’s NewsNation which features bold content like the passionately unbiased Dan Abrams. They are also going hyperlocal, a la Hearst’s Very Local, or EW Scripps Florida 24 Network. Not to mention the success of efforts like Tegna’s Premion. Make no mistake: Sharp, well-intentioned digital and forward-thinking broadcast execs are now in charge.

“Well OK,” you say. “Let’s invest in next-generation antenna.”

Unfortunately, that was Aereo. (Here’s a fun thought I’ll have to put on Twitter: What if the United States government had seized Aereo’s assets, run the streaming service as a monopoly for a decade to get “streaming locals” off the ground, and then broken it up to foster innovation. Remember the Baby Bells?)

But now it’s 2021. And next-gen TV - according to a large and loud group of people is ATSC 3.0.

ATSC 3.0 is a better antenna technology than the HD TV antennas we all transitioned to in 2010.

It arrives next year in San Francisco. (Some markets are available now.)

To benefit, I’ll need a new TV set or external tuner. A few 8K models are available right now. Plus, I’ll need a separate antenna. And an internet connection. (Yes, the vision for Antenna 3.0 requires internet. Let that sink in.)

[Note: Thank you to a reader who pointed out a mistake in a prior version. The fact is, an internet connection is not needed to receive 3.0 channel signals. But the benefit that the ATSC 3.0 crowd talks about the most -- including the tie-in with the connected TV programmatic ad stack -- and the ability to have real measurement based on digital tech, does.]

Do we want this? Do we need this?

What I want is for my local station to show up for free on my Samsung TV. Maybe there’s a small “virtual antenna tax” I need to pay. Make it easy. That’d be nifty!

And maybe since streaming offers unlimited bandwidth, they could host not just one channel, but 10. Or 20! I’d love it if they’d offer up a channel to broadcast our kids’ high school sporting competitions or spring musical.

(And by the way, my report also has data on the demand for long-tail sports from local news viewers. About 10% of the U.S. Internet population is in lockstep with me on that. And doing that wouldn’t require any government funding at all.)

All of this came to a boil in my report, entitled:

Final Call, Act FAST: Broadcast News on Smart TVs, No Antenna Needed.

You already know what FAST means. But for context, I see three key drivers of FAST. (1) Maturity of live ABR streaming tech, which happened faster than I thought it would; (2) Abundant good TV operating systems that have put the start page of TV up for grabs; (3) FAST enables the antenna-grounded linear ecosystem to incorporate the best of yesterday’s TV viewing experience – and add to it. Free and freemium. Easy, lean back viewing. Surfing and searching. The best of live, linear and on-demand. I’m calling it new linear. But in truth, it’s next gen TV.

It gives broadcasters unlimited channel spectrum, a 24/7 outlet, and regional, national and global footprints. All without the hassle of an antenna or cable box.

So why do I say “Final Call?” Simply put, there’s no other, unknown new technology around the streaming corner. Not ATSC 3.0. Nor any forthcoming Apple glasses. The last frontier to land on our TV sets forever more is streaming. And streaming is happening right now.

And yet, gushes of ink, webinar time and dollars have been spent by NAB on ATSC 3.0. Respectfully, I fear that it’s distracting us from my personal desire as a tech-forward citizen, outlined above.

But if that doesn’t do it for you, let’s talk about ROI.

Select the Higher ROI: Antenna 3.0 vs. Streaming?

At business school they taught us that time is the most important variable in any ROI or NPV analysis.

The key question is this: When can we expect a $250,000 investment today – that’s roughly the minimum cost to outfit a local station with ATSC 3.0 – to pay off, even in the very best case scenario?

Think about it this way:

FAST exploded into orbit yesterday, right? Not really. It took connected TV, the base force driving all of streaming, a decade to get from 30% of U.S. HHs in 2011 to 82% in 2021, according to Leichtman Research Group. 

3.0 TVs – mostly 8K models – are tripping out the back door this Christmas. So, not yet at 1% penetration.

Does anyone think broadcasters have a decade of time to wait? Or $250,000 to outfit a station with 3.0? Me neither.

And yet, I'll stay open-minded. If you have different view, I want to hear from you. What am I missing?

Brian Ring is Principal Analyst at Ring Digital llc and Host of #FutureOfTV.Live, a quarterly Zoomcast, D2C TV Survey, & Top 5 Tells news round-up. He helps clients build winning go-to-market strategies leveraging his video tech expertise.

Questions? Comments? Send Brian an email: [email protected]

"Industry Voices" are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce Video staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce Video.