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While most people get their TV shows from cable, satellite or streaming, millions still use just an antenna for free, over-the-air TV viewing. For years, NextGen TV has promised to revolutionize OTA broadcasts, with features such as 4K resolution and interactivity. But progress has been frustratingly slow.
Now, the age-old specter of digital rights management, or DRM, is threatening to derail the process before it even truly starts. The nascent service also faces well-established competition in the form of free TV streaming, which comes with almost every TV and streaming device.
While we’re still generally optimistic about NextGen, it’s worth taking a look at the challenges the service needs to overcome before it’s ready for prime time.
What is NextGen TV?
Also called ATSC 3.0, NextGen TV is a free broadcast standard designed to supersede the existing HD-compatible ATSC. Every major city in the US has multiple HD channels, and many have several of the new NextGen TV channels as well. NextGen’s slow but steady rollout started years ago.
NextGen TV’s potential features include 4K, HDR and easy access from any device in your home. But it also has potential negatives like targeted advertising and DRM. It’s the latter that is especially troubling, as several brand-new NextGen channels are locking out some of the only external tuners available on the market.
Where’s the 4K?
One of the big selling points of NextGen is its ability to broadcast 4K content. Over-the-air has long lagged behind cable and satellite, and especially streaming, for 4K shows and movies. Currently, there are no regular 4K broadcasts, but instead rebroadcasts of HD programming, and that’s unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. NextGen is still rolling out to new markets, and it’s not expected to be ready until 2024 or beyond.
To an extent, this isn’t ATSC’s, nor any specific channel’s, fault. Nearly all content broadcast right now is either network TV shows, which are almost universally HD and not 4K, or older TV shows, none of which were recorded in 4K. Older movies might have 4K versions available, but those aren’t broadcast. This is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation, where networks don’t feel the need to switch to 4K if no one is watching 4K broadcasts. But no one is watching 4K broadcasts because there isn’t any 4K content.
Additionally, there’s the issue of bandwidth. TV stations are only allocated a certain amount of a limited spectrum to broadcast their channel. Think of it like a big highway. Each station has a lane. They can fit four motorcycles in a lane (multiple HD sub-channels), or one big truck (4K). Additional bandwidth limitations due to how NextGen is rolling out further restrict how much of each “lane” can be used.
The ghost of DRM
DRM is an embedded code that can restrict what devices play back a specific piece of content. In the case of NextGen TV, if a device doesn’t meet certain requirements, it’s blocked, and you get a message similar to the one shown above. TVs with built-in tuners, all of which are made by large corporations, reportedly meet these requirements and can view all NextGen content, even if it has DRM.
The problem is that the latest DRM requirements were only announced in March, after several devices had already been produced. This DRM, which is active on many of the NextGen stations already broadcasting, is locking out some early adopters as a result. For example, one of the most popular NextGen tuners, the HDHome Run, as of this writing gets the above message when viewing a DRM-enabled channel. Its maker, SiliconDust, says it’s working on a fix, which is expected to be available soon, but it’s a good example of how ugly this could all get very quickly.
It’s possible with NextGen TV for broadcasters to prevent recordings, or set expiration dates on recordings. While no stations are currently doing this, and they’re prohibited from doing so with simulcast ATSC 1.0 content, this possibility looms over NextGen. Not being able to record a show and watch it later would be a dealbreaker for a lot of people. It’s a small consolation that nearly everything broadcast on NextGen now is also available without DRM via that network’s HDTV (aka ATSC 1.0) channel, but that won’t always be the case.
Those behind NextGen TV are quick to downplay the DRM issue, pointing out that the vast majority of tuners are built into TVs, and those don’t have these issues. Also, these measures are “designed to prevent piracy, not stop home recording.” It’s worth noting this is exactly the same argument we heard in the early days of the DVR, and all the way back to the beginning of time, aka Sony v. Universal. In both those cases, the consumer won out in the end, but not without a fight.
Will NextGen ever be current Gen?
Most Americans can watch some, often several, NextGen broadcasts right now either with a new TV or a separate tuner. If you’re not able to get current OTA HDTV (ATSC 1.0) broadcasts, it’s possible you will be able to get NextGen broadcasts due to their different transmission methods. That’s the good news. The bad news is, if you’re hoping for higher-quality 4K programming, nearly everything broadcast right now is just a simulcast of the HD channels. And, as of this writing, some channels aren’t viewable on some devices, though hopefully, that will change soon.
What’s concerning is it could be too little, too late. Earlier this year, the National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission saying the transition to NextGen was “in peril” and imploring the FCC to take action to help ensure NextGen’s future.
“The single biggest factor in the success of this transition is almost completely out of our control — it is up to the consumer electronics industry to build the devices that consumers will use to access our signals,” NAB wrote. “By signaling support for ATSC 3.0 as the future of broadcasting, the Commission can help ensure these devices get built and marketed. In contrast, a lack of support will slow the pace of deployment, and eventually, we may be stuck.”
While free OTA TV is appealing to many, it’s no longer the only option for free content. Free ad-supported streaming television, aka “FAST” channels, are available on a growing number of smart TVs and streaming devices. Your TV might have this already. Options like Samsung TV Plus, the Roku Channel, Vizio’s WatchFree Plus, Tubi, Pluto and others, offer a vast amount of shows and movies with the only cost being occasional (and often repetitive) advertising. These so-called “linear” TV channels are essentially the throwaway cable channels of the old pre-DVR era. They don’t have the latest shows, or your favorite shows, but they do offer something free to watch while you scroll TikTok on your phone.
Can FAST TV and OTA TV co-exist? Absolutely, but the question is, are enough consumers willing to invest in an antenna and possibly a tuner to keep broadcast stations in business? Are they willing to do so now, when there are still so many unknowns during the prolonged roll-out? One easy way to make sure they won’t is to lock out the ability to record. That’s something I hope everyone involved with NextGen understands. In the meantime, we’ll be watching… the rollout, that is, and whatever stations we can find.
As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarines, massive aircraft carriers, medieval castles, epic 10,000-mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.