NextGen TV Is Coming: Who Will be Watching?

Las Vegas is slated to be the first U.S. market to “turn on” NextGen TV (ATSC 3.0) over-the-air (OTA) commercial television services this month. Another 39 of the largest U.S. TV markets are slated to “turn on” throughout the year, according to U.S. broadcasters. Once those switches are flipped, how many viewers will there be?

The number of viewers will likely be low this year, due in part to COVID-19 and a dearth of consumer-grade tuning devices in the market.

Major TV manufacturers LG, Samsung and Sony have the first U.S. NextGen TV-ready televisions lined up this year, and all have been developing the necessary firmware to activate tuning chips built into the sets. It’s likely that availability of some of the 20 designated models will be delayed due to the pandemic. And the handful that will be available sit near the top of the 4K and 8K premium TV market, making prices out of reach for most consumers.

As for consumer-grade NextGen TV tuners in add-on devices and dongles, most developers remain in the chicken-and-egg stage. They are gauging demand and waiting for tuner-chip prices to drop, which, in turn, will allow for devices with mainstream prices of somewhere below $200. Industry sources don’t expect that to happen for a year or more after the launch of the first broadcasts. One of the earliest such devices will take the form of a Wi-Fi enabled “digital gateway” connected to an antenna. It will receive OTA signals and also distribute signals to multiple connected devices around the house running tuning apps. Here’s a preview:

  • The HDHomeRun Quatro 4K gateway from SiliconDust will debut this year with a limited production run. A successful Kickstarter campaign promises early “investors” the device, which has two ATSC 3.0 and ATSC 1.0 tuners, and support for up to 4K resolution for $199 or more.
  • Startup ZapperBox says it is taking orders for a NextGen TV tuner box called the M1 slated for arrival in the fourth quarter. The $249 single-tuner device is based on BitRouter’s ATSC3pak middleware and software that has been used for pricey pro-level BitRouter-enabled receivers for the past two years. The unit will include Ethernet and HDMI ports, in addition to the antenna and power inputs.
  • In Boise, Idaho, Edge Networks plans a summer launch of Evoca, a pay OTA service distributed via ATSC 3.0. It will use two low-power OTA stations supplemented with Internet Protocol streaming in an area with comparatively low population density. The service will offer more than 80 news, sports, local and live TV channels for less than $50 a month. The company is sourcing the conditional-access equipped STBs itself. The service promises buffer-less HD and 4K picture quality superior to what has been available. It plans to add small-market broadcast territories in the future.

Those are the pioneers. Next up will be lower-priced consumer NextGen TV gateways and tuner devices, which will require economies of scale (hundreds of thousands of unit orders) so that retail pricing of around $100-$150 can be offered. Companies like DigiCap are expected to offer boxes at higher prices on a small scale to test the waters. Once it and others detect a reasonable amount of service availability and consumer demand, orders for mass-market quantities will lower receiver chip prices. It will likely be 2021 before this occurs.

DTC expects there will be some delays for broadcasters who previously planned to “turn on” this year, although not significant delays as much of the ATSC 3.0 infrastructure from the first ATSC 3.0 markets was acquired and installed before the COVID-19 crisis. For example, Sinclair’s OneMedia pushed out the official kickoff date for their Las Vegas station KVCW about a month. It was originally planned for April during the since cancelled NAB Show. Now they plan to turn on ATSC 3.0 on May 26.

The Big Home Screen

On the TV side, only some of the announced 20 NextGen TV models have started shipping to market, although most of them are either in production or coming to market soon.

Samsung is already building NextGen TV tuners into its 10-model 2020 8K QLED television assortment. The company said it has not encountered any significant hurdles throughout development, field trials or certification. Additionally, they say the ATSC 3.0-ready models will tune in NextGen TV out of the box. No critical updates will be necessary, although Samsung said it will issue future updates (as needed) to support broadcasters. The feature is supported in the company’s Q800T, Q900, Q900TS and Q950TS 8K QLED TV model series, which have prices ranging from $3,500-$13,000.

For its part, LG, which has a big stake in ATSC 3.0 development, told us firmware updates needed to unlock the NextGen TV features for its 2020 4K OLED TV models that are coming soon, and it is confident that the Korean company’s involvement in standards development will help to quickly jumpstart the NextGen TV rollout. LG gave no date for the firmware releases, but said they will be timed to coincide with the “ramp-up” of ATSC 3.0 broadcasting.

LG said it will have NextGen TV support in six OLED models, which are a mixture of large screen sizes and 4K UHD and “Real 8K” sets. Many of these models are shipping or in production with suggested retail prices range from $2,500-$29,999. As with Samsung, all of LG’s 2020 NextGen TV models sit at or near the top of the company’s 4K and 8K OLED TV model ranges, where sales volume is small.

Sony, however, is betting the greatest interest in the new NextGen TV system will come from cord cutters who are typically more price-sensitive. ATSC 3.0 tuning is offered this year in one of the company’s mid-range 4K Ultra HD LED-LCD TV series with suggested retail prices of $1,200-$3,500—still just beyond the mainstream price threshold. Historically, the first TVs with new technology come with high price tags, and moderate with greater representation from other suppliers and price points. Sony said an OTA firmware update will be required for ATSC 3.0, but it declined to specify when that update will arrive as this blog was written.

Due to the unprecedented hardships imposed in the battle against COVID-19, ATSC 3.0-ready TV forecasts remain very fluid this year. Analysts revised down overall U.S. TV shipment forecasts soon after shelter-in-place orders were issued, but sales of premium-class TVs, including some of the ATSC 3.0-ready models, have actually exceeded first quarter growth levels of a year ago. Nevertheless, expecting sustained premium-class-TV sales increases amidst an economic crisis is probably not realistic.

If history is a reliable indicator, there will be a modest number of U.S. viewers in 2020 for the logical reasons outlined here. Service availability and number of viewers should dial up next year. Whether history is a reliable indicator in the middle of a pandemic is another question altogether.