Reflections on CES 2020

CES was quite a “coming out party” for ATSC 3.0. The slogan “20 in 2020” suitably reflects the strong support of consumer electronics manufacturers for ATSC 3.0.  ATSC stalwart supporters LG, Samsung and Sony collectively announced 20 models of “NEXTGEN TV” receivers with ATSC 3.0 reception capability.  Cynics might say that there are many models of TVs in the marketplace, but to put the consumer launch in perspective, we have to remember that the launch of ATSC 1.0 in 1998 saw ONE model each from the prominent manufacturers of the day.  

On the broadcaster side, plans have expanded to launch ATSC 3.0 services in some 60 markets (including the Top 40 Nielsen markets), thanks to the combined efforts of broadcasters led by Pearl TV and Sinclair/ ONE Media.  Yes, there are 210 “designated market areas” (DMAs) as measured and reported by Nielsen.  But again, to put this into perspective, it’s a strong start to a voluntary transition, compared to the phased imposition of government mandates for stations to go on-air with ATSC 1.0 beginning in 1999.  In fact, in January 2001 CEA reported that there were about 90 broadcasters on-air with DTV, many in smaller markets.  In drawing comparisons, we have to remember that each ATSC 3.0 “lighthouse” station will carry more than one broadcaster’s programming.  Even a conservative estimate of two broadcasters participating in a lighthouse means a forecast that over 120 stations’ content will soon be on-air.  More realistically, 3 or 4 broadcasters will likely participate in a lighthouse station … well, you do the math!

The consumer electronics industry backdrop for the launch of ATSC 3.0 reveals a vibrant market for television products.  Screen sizes continue to grow … and 8K displays are now clearly the new high end of display resolution capability, while 4K resolution is now the norm in mid-range and some low-end models.  Dynamic range improvements also continue, as both peak brightness levels increase, and black levels get darker.  And it’s also notable that the audio performance of TVs continues to improve, even as high performance immersive audio systems and soundbars are becoming more widely available at lower costs.  So, as the basic video and audio rendering capabilities of consumer products improve, it’s a fortunate timing with the advanced 4K/HDR and audio capabilities that are part of the ATSC 3.0 standard.  

At CES we saw more and more “smart TVs” that are capable of internet streaming and that therefore already include much of the IP-based “technology stack” that we use in ATSC 3.0.  This makes me optimistic that we will see even more receiver models with ATSC 3.0 capability at CES 2021, as manufacturers gain experience with integrating the ATSC 3.0 and the broadband streaming “decoding pipelines” in their products.  Perhaps even more exciting is that the smart TVs are ready-made for the new interactivity capability of “Broadcaster Apps,” which have the promise of delivering new viewing experiences to consumers.  

Even those consumers who purchase a new TV without a 3.0 tuner this year will benefit from some significant future-proofing.  Most new TVs shown at CES now accept High Dynamic Range (HDR) video signal formats over their HDMI connections, making them good candidates for ATSC 3.0 converter boxes that will surely come in the future.  Who knows, perhaps we will even see combined streaming and 3.0 over-the-air receivers sometime soon?

CES underscored that this is a very exciting time in the television industry as we see the launch of the first ATSC 3.0 receiver products and broadcast services in the U.S.  As for the future – “stay tuned” as they say!  It seems pretty safe to predict that we will continue to see innovation in both products and services that are built on ATSC 3.0 technology.

After spending 17 years at NBC Universal in various key senior technology positions, Glenn Reitmeier recently left the NBCU to form GlennReitmeierTV, a consulting agency with a focus on helping industry thought leaders at th­­­e intersection of technology, business and legal issues.  Reitmeier was actively involved in the development and rollout of ATSC 1.0 and spent part of CES 2020 working in the ATSC booth.