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ATSC 3.0 To Impact Hollywood

ATSC 3.0, the new digital television transmission standard can deliver high-quality audio, including immersive formats, impacting many viewing platforms.

The Mandalorian is an example of content leveraging new technologies to control production costs.
The Mandalorian is an example of content leveraging new technologies to control production costs. Disney +

Hollywood, CA (April 12, 2021)—A recent virtual panel hosted by SMPTE Hollywood boosted the audio features of ATSC 3.0, the new digital television transmission standard. ATSC 3.0 can deliver high-quality audio, including immersive formats, over lower bandwidth, a facility that has had an impact across viewing platforms, not just on TV sets.

Madeleine Noland, ATSC president, kicked off proceedings with a reminder of the work that went into developing the standard. It occupied nearly 400 individuals for 10 years, she said, and is the world’s most efficient one-to-many digital terrestrial transmission system, as well as the first such based on the IP protocol.

The standard’s next-generation audio (NGA) provides consistent loudness, supports immersive formats and can deliver personalized features, dialog enhancement (marketed as Voice Plus), multiple alternate languages and other capabilities. ATSC 3.0 incorporates two audio codecs, AC-4 from Dolby Laboratories and MPEG-H from Fraunhofer IIS.

MPEG-H is already in use in South Korea, said Fraunhofer Institute’s Stefan Meltzer. The protocol has undergone trials at a number of major entertainment events worldwide, he noted, and MPEG-H is also the basis of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format.

ATSC 3.0 Recommended by ITU

While ATSC 3.0 is not backward compatible, Dolby’s Tim Carroll pointed out two Dolby technologies that offer compatibility with a host of existing products, smoothing the transition for consumers. One is the MS12 multistream decoder, which generates Dolby Audio bitstreams up to 7.1 channels, plus a two-channel downmix, from all premium audio content. The other is MAT 2.0, which can deliver an efficient representation of the original object-based immersive mix in the home.

Roger Charlesworth, executive director of the DTV Audio Group, put the NGA technologies into context. “These audio systems are not just for ATSC 3.0,” he said. “They have an impact far beyond. That’s why they’re important to the Hollywood community.”

Hastened by the pandemic, the center of gravity of premium entertainment has moved from the cinema to the home, he said. “These premium experiences are available over a range of devices. I can watch a first-run movie in HDR on my iPad and hear virtualized Atmos in headphones.”

Cloud technologies, AI and IP infrastructures all help in the creation of that content and will lead to efficiencies that will continue to lower costs and put more quality on the screen, he said. “The Mandalorian is a great example of premium content that’s also leveraging technology to control production costs.”

“I think we all remember the challenges of 5.1,” said Carroll, a veteran of the digital TV transition in the U.S. He admitted he was wrong to be skeptical about soundbars when they launched. “Soundbars can do some remarkable things,” he said. “Probably the best thing is that it makes it a lot more difficult to not have a center channel. If the sound bar is near the TV, then the center channel is roughly in the right place. I know that really hurt us with early 5.1, and it has affected how content is created since then,” he said.

ATSC is a platform that, unlike previous standards, can evolve, said Noland. And it must continually develop, so that broadcasting can keep up with market demands.

ATSC 3.0-capable TV sets only came on the market in 2020. There are about two-dozen models available and 300,000 have been delivered in the U.S. so far. Analysts project that by 2024 roughly 24 million sets capable of rendering next-gen TV will have been installed in this country, she reported.

“Here in the U.S. almost every new TV that has shipped for quite a while comes with AC-4. So it’s already in place,” said Charlesworth.

With user-generated content proliferating, the new technologies enable premium content creators to differentiate themselves, he said. “That’s what we’ve seen with HDR, 4k and Atmos, and we’ll see it even more so, going forward, as personalization features and accessibility features come in. These systems are going to be the future of content distribution.”

Industry surveys suggest personalization will drive wider uptake of the technologies associated with ATSC 3.0, said Charlesworth. “Sports fans can hear the commentary they want to hear, have the fan experience, have the game skinned for them: home versus visitors. Content is more international, and we have a more diverse population, so a range of languages becomes much more important.”

And with premium content now being delivered to a myriad of devices using these new technologies, these experiences are being democratized, he said