SWAN SONG: Richer Plans Clean Break When He Leaves ATSC Helm, Says He Has No Regrets


‘Really, Truly Retiring’


“There are great things going on at ATSC, besides 3.0 implementation stuff,” but Mark Richer plans no role once he retires as president in mid-May, he told us at the NAB Show. “My little toe will be available to be put in the water if ATSC needs my advice or counsel, but I’m really, truly retiring,” he said.

In addition to “tweaking” the 3.0 standards suite, there’s a group within ATSC that’s “looking at the potential for automotive applications using 3.0,” said Richer. “That’s becoming a really, really hot topic.” There’s also an Implementation Team working on 3.0 receiver conformance. A document on conformance test suites and strategy “is probably one of the most important things ATSC and the larger industry will get done in the coming months,” he said.” he said.

There are ATSC groups working on implementing 3.0 interactivity and emergency alerting, plus “planning team 4” is studying ways to adopt future video codecs like Versatile Video Coding, said Richer. “Everybody believes now’s the right time to start thinking strategically about where we’re going next. That’s healthy for the industry, so hopefully ATSC will always be out front.”

When ATSC started planning last fall for the 2019 NAB Show, Richer told his team “the most important thing is for broadcasters to announce what they’re doing” to deploy 3.0 nationally, said Richer. “If you don’t hear the broadcast industry say, ‘Here’s our plan,’ then nothing we demonstrate is going to make a difference.”

Richer is “thrilled about what we’re hearing at NAB,” he said of plans announced at the show to deploy ATSC 3.0 in the 40 top U.S. TV markets by the end of 2020. “It’s all steps in the right direction.”

It will be a “big thing” to watch over the next few years “what happens internationally with 3.0 deployments,” said Richer. “Every country may not adopt exactly ATSC 3.0, but use it as a [core] standard and add their own twinkle to it.” He thinks there’s a “good chance we’ll see many parts of the world move toward an ATSC 3.0-like system because of its internet-protocol backbone.”

Of his contributions in the 1980s to the PBS team that developed the Line 21 closed-captioning system, “I thought that was the coolest thing I would ever work on,” said Richer. “That was my career, because it was so much fun to be on that team.”

The “connections made through the closed-captioning work” landed him a front-row seat in the “journey getting the original DTV system off the ground,” said Richer. “It was a different time. You had the government involved, for good or for bad.” The framing of ATSC 1.0, as it later came to be called, “at least in the initial development, was very political and really highly competitive,” he said. Richer, and other “people in the leadership” of the effort, spent “a lot of time making sure we were running a process that would be fair, but as importantly, end up with the best system that we possibly could,” he said. “We accomplished that in that period of time, with what we could do with the technologies.”

When Richer chaired the testing and evaluation working party for the FCC Advisory Committee on Advanced Television Service under former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley, “one of my fondest memories was sitting in a conference room in Dick Wiley’s office,” he said. “We’d be having a meeting and talking about serious things, but eating popcorn at the same time. He always used to make fresh popcorn.”

The working party would hold monthly meetings, “and this was before email was really big, so everything was done by paper documents,” said Richer. “People were very passionate about their positions. They weren’t just taking technical positions, but they were getting push from back home by the CEO of the company.  In the end, everybody tried to do what was technically correct,” he said.

Richer learned “an immense amount from the 1.0 process, both about the technology and about people, how they work together or don’t work together,” he said. “It takes some diplomacy but also sometimes takes some pushing. You can’t be just all love and flowers. Sometimes you have to find them a way to move forward. A group will get stuck with different opinions.”

Choosing HD video formats was “probably the most contested thing during the development of the original DTV standard,” said Richer. Picking the two major HD formats in 1080i and 720p “proved to work out fine,” he said. “They both worked well in the marketplace at different times.”

During 1.0’s framing, there was a “general feeling that it should be only an HD system, that you wouldn’t be able to transmit more than one program or service,” said Richer. PBS stepped forward to argue for the ability to beam four or five standard-definition kids’ educational programs during daytime, he said. “We were able to convince the advisory committee and ultimately the FCC that SD programming should be in there,” he said. “Just in the last three or four years, commercial broadcasters have discovered the value of being able to transmit other services. Those things almost didn’t make it into the standard.”

“Now, it’s not enough” to offer a diversity of broadcast services, said Richer. “It adds another challenge to the transition to 3.0 because broadcasters aren’t getting more bandwidth, yet they already offer more services.” Under the 3.0 regime, “they’ve got to figure out a way to keep those operating,” he said.

Richer thinks all possible 3.0 services “are going to happen, and I believe they should,” he said. “Broadcasters need to leverage the fact that they’re local and that they’re wireless.” The challenge in offering a diversity of 3.0 services “is that transition step, because the capacity is so limited,” he said. “Once we get past that step, there’ll be more breakout services. The technology is so flexible, which means so many choices, that I think there’s going to continue to be experimentation.”

Madeleine Noland’s consensus-building leadership qualities served her well in the past year as chair of 3.0’s supervisory committee, Technology Group 3, and make her the standout choice as next ATSC president (see 1904050003), said Richer. Noland will “hit the ground running,” he said. “Madeleine is a terrific diplomat, among her other great traits.”

Richer said he’ll have no regrets watching 3.0’s national deployment from the sidelines. “This is the right timing,” he said. “I don’t feel like I have to be right in the middle of it anymore.”

Though Richer was diagnosed with Parkinson’s 13 years ago, “I’ve been fairly lucky” the disease hasn’t progressed rapidly, he said. “Because I’m in relatively good health, I want to take advantage of that.”

He takes a boxing class three days a week with friends who also have Parkinson’s, he said. “It’s a big workout. I’m a real pacifist, so it’s pretty funny that I’m taking a boxing class. But it’s been really good for me.”

Consumer Electronics Daily excerpt reprinted with permission from Warren Communications News.