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Sinclair's Aitken: ATSC 3.0 Merges News, Alerting

Sinclair Broadcast Group Senior VP of Advanced Technology Mark Aitken at CES 2019. (Image credit: Future)

Mark Aitken, senior VP of advanced technology for Sinclair Broadcast Group, shared the latest updates on ATSC 3.0 with Next TV sibling publication TV Technology. Here is his report. 

Local TV news will become a real-time emergency information portal with the new broadcast technology being deployed in cities across the nation. ATSC 3.0—also referred to as “NextGen”—can automatically target the impact zone of an incident with pre-formatted alerts. This means less revenue lost to service disruptions, more relevance to viewers and more revenue options for broadcasters. 

“Currently, newsrooms and the Emergency Alert System are separate,” said Ed Czarnecki, chairman of the ATSC TGS3-10 Emergency Alert AHG Working Group and vice chair of ATSC Advanced Emergency Information Implementation. “This gives the station flexibility and control over content, and the audience controls what they want to see,” he said during a recent webinar—the second in a six-episode series on how to make money with NextGen TV. “It makes emergency information a value-added service that not only increases community engagement, but … may provide additional abilities to monetize the information.”

Making It Easy

Emergency alerts cover an escalating spectrum of urgency, from traffic alerts to emergency evacuation orders. They often come from multiple agencies and tend to bypass the newsroom. NextGen changes that without throwing a wrench into the workflow.

“We want to work within the current workflow,” said webinar panelist Lane Michaelsen, group news director for Sinclair Broadcast Group. “What we want to keep in mind here is the user and producer experience, so that it’s not an additional mind game on either end.”  

Accordingly, Sinclair is developing alert templates that can go out as they are. Severe weather warnings, for example, can be pre-embedded with links to the station, a live camera, radar and perhaps a sponsorship. These can go out without being touched by a producer, or enhanced within the alert template with live video and additional information. Sinclair’s WJLA and Fox’s WTTG in Washington, D.C., are preparing to test this advanced alerting capability over a 60-day period to hammer out a turnkey workflow on the station side.

On the receiver side, geo-targeting is activated within the NextGen consumer device, so only those devices in affected areas will display the alert, which can run as a live-linked bug or a crawl concurrent with programming. With the exception of presidential EAS messages and tests, viewers decide what they want to see.

Panelist Dan Shelley, executive director of the Radio Television Digital News Association, described this ability as a “game changer” that will improve newsroom workflow, “not the least of which because the phones won’t be ringing off the hook because you’re [a television station] in say, Kansas City, Mo., that has interrupted programming for your entire viewing area for a tornado warning in a fringe county. This will allow people in that county on the edge of your viewing area … to get all the information [they] need without affecting those not in the path of the storm.”

Broadcast App Is Key

This advanced alerting capability rests on the NextGen Broadcast App, which will reside in receivers and enable user clickthrough for further information. It is also the foundation of geo-targeted advertising by ZIP Code, business district or other granular criteria. (More on NextGen Advertising in webinar No. 3, scheduled for Aug. 4 at 2 p.m. ET. Register here.)

What’s more, said panelist Jim DeChant, vice president of technology at News-Press & Gazette, the Broadcast App will underpin the ecosystem for reaching NextGen-enabled mobile phones, computers and TVs.

“The broadcaster app itself will have the look and feel of social media, so basically, instead of changing channels and doing different things on different devices, people will be able to access information in similar ways across all media,” he said.

DeChant also emphasized how integrating emergency information into the news workflow can affect communities in times of crisis. At News-Press Gazette, TV stations use bespoke workflow software that allows journalists to post stories from the field to digital platforms and the playout server simultaneously, in real time. NPG witnessed the power of this immediacy last August after a shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, drove misinformation on social media and panic in the community. 

“Our newsroom was able, in real time, to show people what was happening in their community, and in about four hours time, we were able to calm the community down and give people the information they needed,” he said. “I see the emergency alerting system as being so core to this, and 3.0 being able to provide that user experience that will literally be the calming lifeline to a community.”

Reaching the Widest Audience

Ultimately, advanced alerting will be effective proportionally to how many people see it, so it’s imperative to understand what gets attention as younger generations migrate away from TV. 

“It’s no secret that the audience is changing and along with it, the way news is consumed,” said Fred Baumgartner, director of NextGen TV Implementation at ONE Media and moderator of the webinar.

TV industry strategist and webinar series producer Josh Gordon weighed in with a recent survey* of more than 2,000 respondents that demonstrated how younger and older viewers prefer news stories that impact them differently. Looking across generations—Gen Zs 18-21; Millennials, 22-37; Gen Xers 38-53 and Boomers, 54-72— younger respondents prefer viewing news on mobile devices and have greater preference for news stories that surprise them; older viewers prefer large screen TVs  and have a diminished desire for news that surprises. Asked generically about local TV news, all age groups said it made them feel connected to their communities. Also, if there was something people wanted to know about their communities, they first turned to local TV news.

However, younger viewers said they preferred stories that “make me think” or “surprise me,” while older viewers  preferred “reports on issues I care about” and helped them “prepare for my day.”

“Younger viewers are more opportunistic,” Gordon said. “They have access to their information all the time. It’s something to think about as we consider how to construct content that will appeal to a younger audience.”