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    Sinclair Broadcast's Mark Aitkin looks into the future of broadcasting

    October 21, 2014
    At the industry luncheon on Tuesday, Sinclair Broadcast Group VP of Advanced Technology Mark Aitkin spoke about "Where to from here? (Seen through the eyes of a local market broadcaster)."  In a space that is constantly changing, the real question is, what is the end goal for broadcasters, says Aitkin. "We don't see ourselves as televisioners, but as having platforms to provide services, one of them being television. "There are true drivers outside of technology which help us understand where the future of broadcasting could lie," he said. "At no other time in the history of broadcasting has it had to face as many issues as it faces today, which is a reflection of the rate of growth and development and the rate of growth of consumer consumption. And it's a bit of a reflection of the inability of Washington to get a lot of things done at the same time." The headlines reflect those issues, he pointed out, with a slide showing regulatory and business issues that drive technology. "Every engineer is guilty to some point where we believe technology is the driver and we don't have a keen focus," he said. "We're not listening to our business leaders or the broad surroundings in which we exist. Quite frankly, if you look at the broadcast industry, the management of the station is either a guy who's been selling ads or a guy who's been making news." What's going on? queried Aitkin. "We're engaged in a state of war," he said. "Google has declared war on the ad industry. As an industry if we're unaware that we're at war, we're going to lose. The war is much bigger than any one industry. They're after our business, our advertisers, our content, our viewers. Broadcasting has a track record of doing things better than most." Content has migrated to Internet, satellite, cable and wireless - and content creators are doing the right thing in searching out the best outlets. "The broadcast industry has to unite, at least in a virtual sense, to look at what we can do to become a viable competitor," said Aitkin. "Ten years from now, it will be a sorry state of affairs."  A lot of people are looking at LTE-Broadcast. "This hasn't come to being overnight," he says. "There's been a standardization process looking out over the horizon. The broadcast industry has to think strategically in the same way and evolve our standards so such a future is viable for us too." The opportunities available in other parts of the world where spectrum is slipping out of the hands of broadcasters are coming up with technologies that can "eat our lunch," he said. "Today, clearly, the standard doesn't have the flexibility to do a lot of things. Broadcasters have been slow to the table to identify their wants and needs. The management that's selling ads and running the newsroom doesn't know the opportunities that are available." He addressed the issue of the FCC incentive auction. "It's in a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sell your spectrum and no longer be a broadcaster," said Aitkin. "That's an opportunity I suppose." The promise Congress gave to the FCC was to ensure that broadcasting would not be harmed. Sinclair is engaged in an appeal at the FCC. "We think the guarantees were a key part of what the FCC would execute on and hasn't," he said. "We believe broadcasting is being marched to the cliff." A growing number of broadcasters are trying to identify a means to transition to the next standard without displacing consumers and in a way that leaves the business unharmed and with an opportunity for growth in the future. "LTE came out of a long-term view of the future, but they also looked backward," he said. "As broadcasters, there's a growing voice that says, we need that same opportunity. Not that everyone does this one thing and we hit the wall again in ten years." The challenge is to think about what broadcasters could be, said Aitkin. "You have to first understand what is possible before formulating an opinion. Not all possibilities lead to success." He referenced an article in Harvard Business Review on "Getting People to Believe in Something They Can't Yet Imagine." The key points: sometimes you have to work under the radar. "A demonstration can have a far greater impact in terms of gaining support than data or studies," he added. With a pilot project, showing business applications creates personal and social pressure to behave consistently. Lastly, inevitability is, said Aitkin, "the easy one." "We operate between two extremes of life and death," he said. "The fact is, as an industry today, many of us are looking at the future and know something has to change. There is a dire need to do something different. And I believe as an industry we've begun to turn the corner." He next turned to a discussion of mobile broadcasting, reporting that the average time spent with all digital media per day surpassed TV viewing time for the first time since 2013. Mobile video consumption will increase 16 times to account for two-thirds of all mobile data traffic by 2017. "I think the mobile-connected tablet is the consumption device of the future," said Aitkin. But, he pointed out, "as an industry we totally discounted the notion that people would watch media on anything besides the TV." Do broadcasters need a standard of their own to support mobility? "That's a discussion but primarily a business one," he said. The industry did not put its will behind ATSC mobile television, he said, which was a "massive failure." "Was it good enough?" he said. "We'll never know. Consumers never had the opportunity. The opportunity was lost. It's a failure of leadership." Mobile data offload presents an opportunity for revenue streams. "It's a huge opportunity and today is being measured in trillions of dollars," he said. "It used to be machine-to-machine. All these devices looking to take on more data -- broadcasting is a platform that can uniquely provide that." Mobile carriers' 3G/4G network can't keep up with the massive amounts of mobile data, reported Cisco. Average mobile data rate will have to increase seven-fold from 0.5Mbps to 4Mbps. The opportunity for broadcast is to solve the business, technical and political challenges to build the next-generation mobile video Internet (wired and wireless) today. "Video and data distribution anytime, anywhere with no data gap," he said. "What we really need is a very broad vision for the future, with opportunities beyond 'televisioning'. We're capable of doing more and need to seize the opportunity. We need a regulatory framework that allows broadcast to be competitive and a next-gen broadcast platform that is adaptable, flexible and offers 'optionality'. We want the option to do things, not a mandate. Finally, we need a business alignment between broadcasters that allows our assets to be seen as a service." "We have an opportunity uniquely at this time for broadcasting to reinvent itself," he concluded. "It's about a future where we operate as an industry and present opportunities to the marketplace, as a conveyor of uniquely wireless, unconnected bits to billions of devices. I think that's in our future and that's what I'm working towards."

    Debra Kaufman

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