Despite sharp dissent from its two Democratic commissioners and concern from activists over privacy and costs, the FCC voted 3-2 to endorse Next-Generation TV, a set of standards known as ATSC 3.0 viewed by proponents as the gateway to a bold new era for video’s legacy players.
The new standards, already endorsed by many networks, station owners and the National Association of Broadcasters and in active tests in parts of the country, will bring an array of changes to the viewing experience. They will open up additional bandwidth, which will enable higher-grade 4K picture, enhanced audio and interactive layers not currently offered by over-the-air networks. New networks and even emergency functionality could result, and proponents say the endeavor will make over-the-air broadcast TV more competitive with internet-delivered or pay-TV offerings.
“This is precisely the kind of technical innovation that the FCC should champion,” said Ajit Pai, chairman of the Republican-controlled FCC. He touted the “wide range of benefits” and the strong support of public broadcasters.” Ultimately, the effort will help broadcasters compete with tech giants and the diminished but still powerful pay-TV bundle.
The commission’s two Democrats voiced concern that the new standards would see a replay of the nation’s bumpy digital TV transition, which brought about years of reconciliation of pixel counts and aspect ratios in a process that proved frustrating, lengthy and expensive.
In her strongly worded dissent, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the standards offer “no benefit to consumers” and in fact are “a tax on every household with a TV” given new equipment expenses. Nothing but corporate interests are prompting the changes, she added. “We don’t have a Congressional mandate – we have unelected FCC officials.”
Because of simulcasts planned during a transition period, Pai countered, “Current viewers with current TVs will be unaffected.”
Rosenworcel and fellow dissenter Mignon Clyburn urged further review of the standards, a recommendation that Pai blasted as “tired” posturing by “naysayers.” Clyburn also highlighted concerns about privacy, given that the more sophisticated technology of ATSC 3.0 would enable hyper-targeting by advertisers despite unclear standards on privacy, which could result in viewers’ personal data being compromised.
As with the landmark decision earlier in the four-hour open meeting to dismantle decades’ worth of local TV ownership rules, Sinclair Broadcast Group factored into the debate, though this time not by name.
Harold Feld, senior VP at public-interest group Public Knowledge, was among many calling out Sinclair, the No. 1 station owner poised to reach some 72% of U.S. households if its $3.9 billion acquisition of Tribune Media is approved. “Once again, Chairman Pai takes action that primarily benefits Sinclair Broadcasting at the expense of consumers,” Feld said in a statement. “Sinclair has boasted that the new ATSC 3.0 standard will give them detailed information about consumer viewing habits that they can then sell to advertisers. They have also boasted about the patent royalties they will collect. Despite this, the FCC Order does nothing to protect consumer privacy or protect consumers from the extra costs this transition will impose.”