NextGen TV: Minnesota stations move towards 4K broadcasting

The future of free over-the-air television broadcasting has arrived in the Twin Cities. As of Aug. 16, five television stations are now broadcasting in what the television industry has branded as NEXTGEN TV.

"There is no better system in the world than this one," said Madeleine Nolan of the Advanced Television Systems Committee.

NEXTGEN TV is the name given to what engineers call the ATSC 3.0 broadcast signal. For the moment, it is a secondary broadcast signal that does not replace the ATSC 1.0 signal which is what television stations converted to during the FCC-mandated transition from analog broadcasting in 2009.

"The amazing thing is that all of the broadcasters here in Minneapolis are collaborating together to bring this new technology to viewers," said NEXTGEN TV spokesman David Arland.

The new NEXTGEN transmitter is operated by WUCW-TV which nearly all Twin Cities viewers know as CW-23. The CW affiliate and Sinclair Broadcasting station agreed to become what’s called a lighthouse station. It means it is broadcasting all the NEXTGEN frequencies for itself, FOX 9, KARE 11, KSTP-TV, and WCCO-TV. Twin Cities Public Television, KTCA-TV, and KTCI-TV, are not part of the Twin Cities NEXTGEN cooperative broadcasting arrangement.

"Last Wednesday, we made the conversion to 3.0," said CW-23 Chief Engineer Ed Johnson from inside the transmitter building at the tower site in Shoreview. 

Johnson helped oversee Sinclair’s installation of the new transmitter during the past month. The transmitter itself is entirely solid state and resembles a series of four liquid-cooled server racks sitting in the middle of a spotless cinder block room clean enough to serve dinner on the floor. A highly polished 6-inch copper encased coaxial pipe exits the top of the transmitter carrying 52 kilowatts of signal power up to the top of the broadcast tower just yards away. 

"Essentially, this is stronger and you will see it's stronger, but it's just a different format of television," said Johnson.

But the transmitter is only a part of the broadcasting equation.

"So, you need to have broadcasters that are transmitting the information. We need to have an antenna at home to receive it. And of course, you need to have a receiving device that can make these beautiful pictures on your television," said NEXTGEN’S Arland.

The new over-the-air broadcast signals can only be received with a NEXTGEN TV-enabled television set or a converter box. Sony, LG, Samsung, and Hisense are currently adding the receivers to their TV sets 55" and larger. The cheapest of these sets retails for $599. A converter box by ADTH is available for around $90.

For many viewers, especially those with large TV sets, the conversion may be appealing. First, the new technology allows broadcasters the ability to send more robust video signals. It makes possible 4K and High Dynamic Range (HDR) video reception. The colors are deeply saturated, with virtually no motion delay, which is especially noticeable in high-action videos such as NFL broadcasts.

Second, the audio is more clear with Dolby-enhanced technology. The technology allows for more sub-audio channels such as descriptive audio for the visually impaired, and multiple languages.

Third, the technology allows for more advanced emergency alerts and enhanced internet content on demand.

The rollout of the new television signals in the Twin Cities came during an event at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, sponsored by the Minnesota Broadcaster’s Association, NEXTGEN TV and National Association of Broadcasters.

"Starting today, Minneapolis officially joins the ranks as the 70th market that has voluntarily launched this new service while simultaneously continuing to serve viewers with existing free over-the-air digital TV channels," said Wendy Paulson, President of the Minnesota Broadcaster’s Association.

One of the key elements of the new technology will be the ability for local broadcasters to enhance their news coverage with the ability to add layers of digital content. That feature is not lost on Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose father Jim Klobuchar was a respected newspaper reporter and radio broadcaster.

"To deliver that news, we have to keep up to speed and up to technology in the modern day," said Klobuchar at the rollout event. "And so that means having the best technology available, being able to compete with what are essentially monopolies that are out there when we have the technology companies," she said referring to social media giants such as Facebook.

But NEXTGEN TV is not without its critics. Consumer and free information advocates have questioned the ability of local broadcasters to use encryption technology in the new signals to effectively block viewers from using their DVRs on live content. 

The fight is over what’s called digital rights management, or DRMs. Local broadcasters in theory could encrypt the signals of certain live programming to prevent content piracy. However, critics argue that it negates the very concept of free over-the-air broadcasting and being able to record programs and watch them at a time that’s most convenient for the viewer.

The Twin Cities rollout of the new technology comes with the pledge to help figure out how to program and use it. The NAB announced the University of Minnesota will become a host school for what it calls its PILOT Next Generation TV Fellowship. The Hubbard School of Journalism starting in the 2024-25 academic year will host the fellowship program for four students and faculty members to research possible applications for the NEXTGEN TV.

"What we plan on doing here at Minnesota is having some of our new visual journalism faculty members working closely with students," explained Professor Elisia Cohen, director of the Hubbard School. "Possibly also some engineering students in an interdisciplinary way to bridge students trained in journalism, interested in visual storytelling with those who are interested in the social applications of technology to really train the next generation of students moving into media professional careers in this new emerging area of our field. So we're very grateful for the partnership."