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Optimistic Broadcasters Tout New Tech, Gambling Potential At NAB NY

If ever there’s a place where broadcasters can put on a brave, even confident face amid the soul-wilting challenges of a transforming entertainment industry, it’s at National Association of Broadcasters conventions.

Even by that welcoming standard, however, this week’s NAB New York show was chock full of confidence among over-the-air champions who think they can see a future of growth and opportunity just ahead.

Part of it could be attributed to major announcements at the show about the rollout of ATSC 3.0, the technology taking broadcast to an addressable, interactive, Internet Protocol-based  future. Many speakers were bullish about that promising and fast-approaching reality, with all the new capabilities it can unlock.

And then there’s gambling on live sports, likely to be widely legalized in the next few years and playing into broadcast TV’s remaining bastions, live sports. Mix it together and some executives were positively bursting with optimism .

It all points to a transformed broadcast business, though as Sinclair Broadcast Group CEO and President Christopher Ripley put it when asked about consolidation in the sector, such distinctions won’t matter soon.

“How many players end up dominating the broadcast market I think is the wrong question,” Ripley said. “There’s not going to be a broadcast(-only) space in short order. If you just think of yourself as competing in the broadcast space, and you’re not (also) competing against Amazon, and Apple, and others, you don’t know the media space.”

Ripley positioned Sinclair, the nation’s biggest station group, as a “product and technology” company, rather than one focused on content or marketing. As examples, Ripley noted that Sinclair is creating a string of new products, such as the online news service Circa and the coming AVOD streaming service STIRR.

ATSC 3.0 will unlock even more capabilities. On NAB NY’s first day, executives from Fox, NBC/Telemundo, Univision, SpectrumCo and Pearl TV committed to make new services and content available as consumer products hit the market in 2020. Makers of those consumer products, such as LG, quickly issued releases applauding the industry commitment to ATSC 3.0-ready content.

And if 2020 seems a long ways away, executives pointed out we’re only a couple of months from 2019. It’s close, if not right around the corner.

The execs touted the potential to provide over-the-air digital programming not just to your in-home big screen. Enabled mobile devices and vehicles could both tap these signals, which can be used for a wide range of services beyond traditional “TV.”

“The new standard will transform the way we deliver content to our audiences, including viewers who are consuming information in multiple languages and screens,” said Valari Staab, the president of NBCUniversal Owned Television Stations. “ATSC 3.0 will also help us to better connect advertisers with the audiences they want to reach on any platform.”

Richey said the technology – which allows addressable, interactive advertising tied to on-demand programming – will generate CPMs two to three times higher than traditional linear broadcast. That can’t come soon enough for broadcasters, who face a punishing 2019 without the World Cup, Winter Olympics or mid-term elections to fatten up their bottom lines.

But when ATSC 3.0 arrives the following year, stations can pack four times more digital channels in the same spectrum, add multiple languages and begin to offer other kinds of data services too.

Importantly, Richey said, “It’s a mobile-first standard. You’re no longer tethered to that TV on the wall. You can receive a quality signal while going 100 mph in a car.”

For example, Anne Schelle, who heads the Pearl TV consortium of eight station groups that’s conducting a major ATSC 3.0 test in Phoenix, said Pearl just signed a deal with Avis to provide entertainment and other services for its rental cars.

“It’s a big pipe,” said Louis Libin, the managing director of HC2 Broadcasting. “That’s how we’re looking at it right now. We’re still accumulating stations. The first project is tying them all together, treating them not as a TV network, but tying them together like a wireless system. We can partner in a whole new way. At that point, we can begin to test the various applications and (Internet of Things services).”

Amid all of the bragging there was an occasional note of caution. Marci Ryvicker, managing director of Wolfe Research and a long-time analyst of the broadcast and cable sectors, said Wall Street still isn’t factoring ATSC 3.0’s potential into its broadcast valuations.

“To be honest, this has not been part of the conversation on Wall Street,” Ryvicker said. “It is really far out (given Wall Street’s quarterly focus). I don’t expect any investors to give credit for this. I expect that will come when investors from outside the sector come in. That will create buy-side pressure.”

One big question, Ryvicker said, is whether the industry can roll out ATSC 3.0 services and content fast enough to keep up with competing distribution technologies.

“I’ve gotten a lot of questions: ‘What is it? What can it do?'” Ryvicker said. “But there’s been no real quantification. When should we start thinking about it? It still feels like it’s a couple of years away.”

The same week as NAB NY, for instance, Netflix announced it had picked up another 7 million subscribers in its last quarter, and released nearly 700 hours of new programming. And the next generation of mobile, 5G, is getting billions of dollars of investment from carriers including AT&T, which just announced a streaming video service from its newly acquired WarnerMedia unit.

Pearl TV’s Schelle said she believes sports will be a big part of the new platform’s success, especially local high school and college sports.

And sports betting will provide another big broadcaster opportunity. After a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, a dozen states are expected to consider legalization laws in 2019, on top of the five where it’s already legal (Nevada, Delaware, New Jersey, Mississippi and West Virginia). Want a quick example of the potential: since legalizing sports gambling in June, New Jersey casinos already have collected more than $336 million in bets.

Gambling looms so large for broadcasters, leagues and distribution platforms because it can keep people watching long after a game’s overall outcome is decided.

“The audience is incredibly ready for it and they’re conditioned to it,” said Larry Samuels of  Strategic Acceleration Ventures and an advisor to emerging media, tech and advertising companies. “Fantasy sports, knockout pools, all of those things are, in a way, gambling. You’re creating an incentive and a reason for people to watch, for people to engage, and to stick with a broadcast much longer than they would have otherwise, because they’re invested in what’s going on.”

Broadcast networks have their own big investments, owning expensive TV rights through at least 2021 with all of the Big Four pro sports leagues. And gambling almost certainly won’t stop with the Big Four, nor will it just be about game outcome. Expect to see plenty of exotic “prop” bets, massive in-game wagering, bets on fantasy scoring and much else, across many sports.

For instance, Sinclair’s cable network the Tennis Channel, of all things, could ace sports gambling if it becomes widely legal.

“Tennis is the second-most bet sport in the world,” Ripley said. “In the rest of the world, people bet in-match. It’s going to be a huge opportunity for us in the U.S. The Tennis Channel has most of the rights on tennis in this country. We’re looking actively at how we append gaming onto that.”