Television upfronts

Broadcasters know they're facing mortal danger. But what's next?

(Palo Alto, Calif.) — A court victory by Aereo would be enormously disruptive for broadcasters, many of whom have not yet found a way to meet consumer demand for mobile video.

Yet according to one broadcasting exec, an Aereo victory might be just the prod the broadcasting industry needs to change.

“I think it’s one of those events that forces the broadcast industry into action out of its inaction,” Mark Aitken, VP, advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, told a panel at the SMPTE “Entertainment Technology in the Internet Age” conference on the campus of Stanford U. “I think that if Aereo wins you already have networks on the precipice with their affiliates in terms of allowing things like streaming, which would have been unheard of, but becoming a complimentary component to what we do as long as there’s a way to measure it.

“One of the reasons we suffer as an industry is that we are unconnected to understanding where consumers are, what they’re watching, where they’re watching it and why,” said Aitken, adding that broadcasters need to improve their relationship with viewers. “So I think that in a certain sick sense, a decision that would hoist Aereo forward might be a very good bad thing,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Justices Express Concern Over a Sweeping Aereo Ruling

That’s not to say that Aitken is optimistic about the effect an Aereo victory in court would have on availability of consumer content. On the contrary, he argues that if Aereo wins, the prime content consumers now get for free or nearly free would migrate entirely to more lucrative platforms, leading consumers to “an environment where all you have access to is crappy content.”

Aitken’s remarks came on a panel with the provocative title “Is the big stick antenna dead?”; “big stick” antennas are the towers local stations use to send out their signal.

The panel was largely quick to say no, broadcasting is not dead. But they did agree that it faces mortal danger, even aside from the threat of Aereo.

“Broadcasting has to change or we’re dead,” said Aitken. “I think how we’re going to live is based on the idea of data driving content delivery. That’s absolutely essential. We need an all IP-based transport platform that can play across any device, with a browser as our window to the consumer, to the viewer.”

Jeff Weber, principal at consulting firm 2Door Partners, added that today’s local affiliates, with their “big stick” antennas, aren’t well-suited to the marketplace today. “Inertia, incumbency and politics are going keep things this way for a long, long time,” said Weber, “but if you built (the TV infrastructure) today it would look very different.” Weber and Aitken both called for the next standard to include home storage, which would let viewers download programs for later viewing.

Aitken also said that the broadcasters today could do a better job delivering today’s HDTV to the home. No terrestrial channels can match the resolution and color of full 1080p HDTV, which is available on Blu-ray.

One panelist is actually working on the next generation of television: Jerry Whitaker, VP of Standards Development for the Advanced Television Systems Committee, which is writing the next global television standard. Whitaker said that work on that standard, dubbed ATSC 3.0, has been underway for around two years and will continue for roughly two to three more years before it can be presented to lawmakers and the public.

Whitaker gave a few insights into what ATSC 3.0 is likely to include: Video sent as IP data, like Internet video, since so many devices can already handle that; the ability to reach both fixed and mobile screens; and 4K Ultra High-Definition pictures and immersive sound (with a possible future path to 8K UHD).

“The thing about developing technology is we don’t know what we don’t know,” said Whitaker. “It’s impossible to predict today what technology will be viable and can be brought to bear to solve problems broadcasters have. So the system is designed to be extensible.”

Whitaker did not say how broadcasters might be able to measure mobile viewing or permit dynamic ad insertion, both of which are tech holy grails for broadcasters, rights holders and advertisers.

One data point driving the conversation about the future of broadcasting is the results of a Consumer Electronics Association survey showing that some time in the next year, there will be more viewers getting their TV from the Internet alone than from over-the-air alone. Right now, around 6% of those surveyed said they get TV by antenna alone, and that number is declining. (Many more get TV from a mix that includes an antenna.) Meanwhile 5% of respondents said they get TV from the web alone.

Michael Bergman of the CEA presented some details on that data, noting that over-the-air viewers are disproportionately older viewers, who grew up with antennas and are used to them, and that according to the CEA survey, 33% of antenna-only viewers are unemployed and many have a household income under $25,000, so they are not the prime target of advertisers.

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