Trump could make TV great again with the ‘NextGen’ standard

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History may choose to look past the denials, distractions and dysfunction of Donald Trump’s early days as president when it writes the final story. Delivering on campaign promises is one thing, but few American presidents have set out to revive flailing industries with the deliberation and definiteness of purpose as President Trump and succeeded. Aside from the drama, the president is on course to change the U.S. economic landscape for decades to come. Only time will tell whether he is successful, but for now, the old order is on the way out.
In the meantime, Trump’s policies seek to breathe new life into some of America’s legacy industries—coal, communications, manufacturing, steel, oil and gas. Among these, none stands to gain as much as broadcast television. In a few short months, broadcasters have seen Obama’s unfavorable policies undone by the Trump administration, with the promise of more action – and less regulation – to come in the very near future.

{mosads}As one of the nation’s most highly regulated industries, broadcasters note that historically restrictive government policies have put them at a disadvantage in the fast-moving, hyper competitive market for viewers and advertisers. They point to the public interest obligations and responsibilities that are required of free, over-the-air, broadcasting, and contrast that with the relative freedom and lesser regulation of pay television providers.


But the free versus pay video debate is nothing new. What is new is Trump’s approach toward the broadcast sector. With Republicans controlling the House, Senate and thirty-three state governors, Trump is moving to leverage the perfect partisan alignment into a deregulatory agenda. Aside from a boon in ratings for Saturday Night Live, it is an agenda bespoke for broadcasters in welcome new ways.

Currently, the law prohibits a single broadcaster from owning commercial TV stations that reach more than 39 percent of American TV households. The “ownership cap,” as it is called, dates to 1941, and was imposed to protect localism, diversity and competition in the market. Some say it has outlived its original intent. It has been updated a few times over the years – in 1985, 1996, and 2004, when Congress established the current level and mandated that the Federal Communications Commission review the rule every four years. 

To determine the number of stations under the cap, broadcasters count every VHF station (channels 2-13) as one, and discount the population served by UHF stations (channels 14-83) by fifty percent. In August 2016, President Obama eliminated this “UHF discount”, forcing broadcasters to forego further expansion, mergers and service to more communities. This decision was challenged by several broadcasters. On the opposing side were consumer, minority and public interest groups.

Citing the competitive disparity between broadcasters and other video programming distributors, the Trump administration has announced it will bring back the UHF discount. This is expected to spark a new round of mergers and acquisitions, and advance competition among broadcasters at a time when the U.S. view on mergers is shifting from restrictive to permissive.

Perhaps most favorable for broadcasters will be the administration’s plan to authorize the “Next Generation” television standard. This “Next Gen TV”, as it is called, was developed and advanced by a blue-ribbon group of engineers under the banner of the Advanced Television Systems Committee (ATSC). The new standard – ATSC 3.0 – gives broadcasters the ability to use their TV channels to provide broadband viewing and Internet-like information delivery methods for free.

The virtues of ATSC 3.0 are manifold. The new standard promises enhanced innovations for consumers, including ultra-high definition pictures, immersive audio, more localized content and an improved emergency alert system, not only on televisions, but also on mobile devices and TV receivers without antennas. With hyper local accuracy, anyone with a mobile device can be warned of breaking weather emergencies, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods; terrorist attacks, active shooters; fires; Amber alerts and other crises. If wireless or online communications are interrupted, as with Hurricane Sandy or 9-11, broadcast signals will still work operate.

While the Trump administration seeks to authorize Next Generation TV as an optional standard to be used on a voluntary basis, it encourages local simulcasting of both the existing standard and the new standard. Reportedly, there will be no cost to government or taxpayers for these new capabilities, although cable and telephone companies want to make sure they are not burdened with new carriage obligations or costs for these 3.0 transmissions. There are others who want to see a mandatory “public safety” chip in cell phones, citing the V-chip precedent required of TV manufacturers. The U.S. government may set the pace by considering government phones to be so-equipped. That could be a valuable tool for governors, mayors, first responders and emergency alert systems throughout the country.

If consumers can access these services on their mobile devices as promised, then manufacturers and carriers will surely figure out how to monetize the inevitable demand and provide the service at a reasonable cost. But that could be a long way away. The first step begins with the FCC’s decision later this month to authorize the Next Gen TV standard for use. While some have written broadcast as a dying industry, Trump’s policies might make TV great again.

Adonis Hoffman (@AdonisHoffman) is chairman of Business in the Public Interest. He is an adjunct professor at Georgetown University and former chief of staff and senior legal advisor to Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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