FCC Will Allow Broadcasters to Move to New ‘Next Gen’ TV Standard

Ajit Pai

WASHINGTON — Broadcasters will be allowed to start using a new TV standard that allows for a bevy of new services, including interactivity, improved picture and sound, and targeted advertising.

The standard — technically called ATSC 3.0, but also known as Next Gen TV — has long been a dream of broadcasters anxious to better compete with online media.

The FCC’s action is voluntary: Broadcasters won’t be required to adopt the standard, and, at least initially, consumers won’t be forced to buy new TV sets or devices. The stations that move to such a standard must continue to operate their current channels via a simulcast.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Next Gen TV will be a “voluntary market driven transition” that could help public television broadcasters in offering interactivity for children’s educational television. He said it will allow free, over-the-air broadcasters to better compete with subscription cable and satellite TV.

Yet the action hasn’t been free from controversy. The FCC vote was 3-2.

The cable industry is concerned over the costs to carry the Next Gen signal, including the impact it would have on carriage negotiations with broadcasters. The FCC’s action does not require them to provide the upgraded station signals to their subscribers. Others have brought up issues of consumer privacy, and whether viewers will have their TV habits traced in the same way that they are on social media.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn criticized the FCC’s action, saying that specific provisions will allow broadcasters to create “two different tiers of television.” She also warned that some viewers may lose broadcast signals altogether as the industry transitions to a new standard, and she called for greater protections for consumers.

“This order is not ready for primetime,” she said.

“What we do today is rush this standard to the market, with an ugly disregard to consumer consequences,” said Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel. She said the standard should be tested in a single market before the FCC approves its use nationwide.

She noted that Sinclair Broadcasting, which holds patents on the technology, has been one of the biggest champions for the FCC approving its use. Sinclair also has a merger with Tribune Media pending before the FCC, which would create a broadcast giant with more than 200 stations reaching 72% of the country.

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, however, said the transition to a new standard would be in a number of stages, as happened when the industry switched to digital television. In that case, it took years of planning before the transition in 2009.

Broadcasters see the new standard as a way to provide improved pictures and sound, along with interactivity and advanced emergency alerts. It also will enable broadcasters to offer more mobile services, including ways for consumers to watch without counting against data caps.

As some public interest groups have raised questions about privacy, Dennis Wharton, spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, said earlier this week that the new standard “will not magically allow your TV to tell broadcasters demographic information about you to show better ads. That’s nonsense.” The Federal Trade Commission will have some authority over whether companies are following privacy policies.

The Next Gen standard, which combines over-the-air broadcasting with broadband technology, will allow stations to “show you advertisements more likely to fit your interests,” Wharton said.