As broadcasters in the US continue to flounder amid linear TV ratings, cord cutting and fragmented audiences, going over the top remains a sore point for local station groups. For several years now, over the air broadcasters have pinned all their hopes on ATSC 3.0, which promises to ease broadcasters’ transition to multiscreen digital video delivery by combining IP delivery with broadcasting technology and standards.
But even as the FCC fast-tracks approval of ATSC 3.0, broadcasters are still faced with the cumbersome task of updating all of their gear and infrastructure to support ATSC 3.0, before they can begin delivering content to viewers across multiple screens. In other words, online delivery of broadcast station content is still a few years down the road.
In the meantime, a number of companies have emerged with new ways to get broadcasters’ local content to multiple devices, including MediaFlo, Dyle, Aereo, FilmOn and TabletTV. Most of those have died; and in the case of Aereo, specifically, cause of death was the broadcasters themselves, who have maintained an iron grip on not only their content, but the delivery networks that content flows over.
So it’s puzzling that in this environment two more companies have stepped forward in hopes of becoming the technology partner that over the air broadcasters will finally embrace.
First to market was Didja, a start-up known for its launch of Clippit, a social app that lets viewers create short clips of their favorite linear TV programs for sharing with friends. Didja has now taken on a more risky endeavor: transmitting broadcast signals online and over the top to reach viewers’ mobile devices. Didja launched initially in San Francisco, California, with an app called BayAreaBTV. It offers 35 channels of local station content from around the area. The channels are received by large antennas owned by Didja, and then transmitted to users’ devices via IP. The service is free to users, but Didja offers a cloud DVR service for about $5 a month.
Instead of trying to get around retrans rules by using multiple small antennas, as Aereo and FilmOn have tried, Didja has acquired licenses for delivering that content online. But the major caveat here is that none of the major national broadcasters – ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox, nor their affiliates in the Bay area – have agreed to join the service.
The result is a 35-channel streaming TV service filled with niche content offerings. In the Bay area, that includes multiple multi-lingual channels aimed at serving Korean, Vietnamese, Spanish and Hindi speaking communities. While BayAreaBTV is certainly digging into an untapped market in San Francisco, it doesn’t offer a very strong value proposition for a national service.
The second company to lunge for this opportunity is FreeCast, which has launched a series of Web-centric content services over the years, aimed at connecting linear TV-phobic viewers with broadcast content. FreeCast is now looking to aide broadcasters’ in their transition to ATSC 3.0 by launching a compatible broadcasting platform that supports both over the air broadcasting and over the top streaming.
The platform is able to ingest video from field locations, online sources or studio productions and distribute that content to either TV station headends for over the air broadcast or for streaming video feeds online. That means local stations can use the platform to broadcast Web content over the air, or stream over the air content online.
FreeCast CEO William Mobley claims the platform will enable broadcasters to take advantage of ATSC 3.0 immediately. “This is a tremendous opportunity for broadcasters to both cut costs and more fully utilize their infrastructure and the airwaves,” Mobley said. “Our platform allows the same programming, the same channels, plus new niche channels to be delivered via over the air broadcasts and digitally via IP, reaching the web and mobile simultaneously. The end result will be more content of higher quality reaching consumers on more devices.”
Broadcasters can use the platform to launch what FreeCast calls MicroChannels, niche and hyper-targeted channels that broadcasters can create to deliver niche content to longtail audiences in premium advertising environments, which Mobley claims will help local stations attract more advertising dollars. “If you’re a company like Pillsbury, you’d rather directly sponsor or advertise to those highly-targeted, pre-sorted people watching a Baking Channel, versus paying the premium to filter through millions of viewers absorbing various topics on the Food Network,” Mobley said.
The company is also betting that local station production will become more centralized in response to the FCC removing the so-called “main studio rule,” which dictates that local stations must maintain physical studios in the markets they serve. “Relaxation of this rule means that broadcasters can save money by centralizing operations, and as they prepare to do so, FreeCast now has the technology ready to serve them,” he said.
But the question remains whether either of these two offerings will attract the support of the major national broadcasters or their affiliates across the country. To date, these broadcasters have preferred to strike their own licensing deals with the likes of YouTube, Hulu, PlayStation Vue and Sling TV, in a market-by-market basis, which has typically served only to slow down the launch of these streaming services and access to broadcast content. So far, CBS is the only national broadcaster that’s launched its own streaming service that offers local station content.
The trouble is that broadcasters are running out of time and advertisers are taking their money elsewhere. That’s led to a wave of consolidation among local station groups, led by local media giant Sinclair Broadcasting, which is currently poised to scoop up nearly three quarters of US households with a number of acquisitions in the works. And while consolidation is a near term attempt to shore-up advertising across increasingly fragmented audiences, it won’t solve the larger issue at hand: broadcast television will need to update itself if it’s to remain relevant for much longer. Waiting around for ATSC 3.0 to solve its technology woes will very likely prove to be a failed strategy.