At last, there’s a big improvement for broadcast TV on the horizon, and it’s appropriately called Next-Gen TV — or for the technically-minded, ATSC 3.0. The new system will bring 4K HDR to your over-the-air stations for free. Forty markets across the country have been tapped to be among the first to offer Next-Gen TV by the end of this year, including Salt Lake City. (How far that market extends up and down the valley is not yet known.) This is especially good news for cord cutters or those who never subscribed to cable TV.
As with any new standard — think back to the transition from standard definition square TVs to HD rectangular ones and you’ll get the idea — you will need new hardware to watch 4K shows and receive the other benefits of Next-Gen TV. And there’s no rush: The first ATSC 3.0-compatible TVs were just introduced at the Consumer Electronics Show held earlier this month. Yet, it’s a good time to understand the technology, so you can make plans for when it becomes available in your area.
Let’s start with the benefits of Next-Gen TV, which has been in the works since 2017. With the new ATSC 3.0 standard, over-the-air TV viewers will see better reception, support for 4K programming, 120-Hz refresh rates for smoother viewing of fast motion scenes, along with new emergency response integration.
“One of the most compelling features of Next-Gen TV will be the life-saving alerting functions that will give our nation’s first responders the ability to use the broad reach of local television to keep viewers informed during emergencies,” National Association of Broadcasters President and CEO Gordon Smith said in an atsc.org news release.
Viewers also will hear better sound via Dolby Atmos and DTS-X, rival surround sound systems that add a height dimension to multi-level movie soundtracks, so an airplane will sound as if it’s overhead. Finally, ATSC 3.0 can be applied to mobile devices too, which means it will be possible to watch TV on other devices connected to your home network.
All of these appealing features are part of free Next-Gen TV, but you won’t be able to receive ATSC 3.0 broadcasts unless your hardware is compatible. So what do you need for Next-Gen TV? Your current antenna will work with the new standard, but current TVs and DVRs will not. There are two options: buy a TV that supports the new standard or add a compatible tuner to your system, much like the converter boxes that were used to convert digital TV signals into analog ones to view programming on older TV sets.
At CES, three major TV manufacturers — LG, Samsung and Sony — unveiled 20 different models with ATSC 3.0-compatible built-in tuners, all high end models. While pricing wasn’t announced, you won’t find any deals here. In fact, TV analysts are predicting a minimum of $2,200. But there should be an affordable option in the future. Instead of buying a new TV, buy an external tuner when they become available. As far as I can see, no affordable Next-Gen tuners are on the market, but they will be, and you can be sure the price will drop over the first year or two.
Now that you’ve learned the basics of Next-Gen TV, it’s time to talk about timing. The new standard falls under guidelines from the Federal Communications Commission, so we will see some consistency across broadcasters. The most important FCC rule applies to stations that switch to Next-Gen TV and says that they must continue to broadcast the current standard (ATSC 1.0) for five years. Public broadcasting stations have asked for an exemption, which could mean that they would phase out 1.0 earlier.
As for programming, we will likely see major sports broadcast first on ATSC 3.0 channels, with the most popular shows in a network’s arsenal to follow. This will be up to the networks and their local affiliates that choose to offer Next-Gen TV.
The bottom line for today’s and tomorrow’s cord cutters is that you can buy a new TV with confidence, regardless of Next-Gen TV compatibility, because you will be able to add a compatible tuner once programming becomes available — or shortly thereafter. Once we see widespread adoption by broadcasters, plenty of 4K programming and affordable hardware, Next-Gen TV capability will become a must-have feature ... but you have at least two years to prepare.