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TV industry making big changes to the way stations transmit over-the-air signals

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

With all the streaming and cable options out there, about a fifth of Americans still watch at least some TV with an old-fashioned antenna. Stations have been working to upgrade their signals, promising better reception and sharper pictures, but the rollout has been bumpy. Here's Minnesota Public Radio's Matt Sepic.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: If you've shopped for a TV lately, you've probably seen the terms 4K Ultra HD and high dynamic range. That's not just marketing hype. New sets can display images with far more detail, richer color and deeper contrast than their predecessors. Services such as Netflix have been streaming high-resolution video for years, now traditional broadcasters are catching up. Anne Schelle is with the trade consortium that's backing a new over-the-air system called NextGen TV. She says it's a response to demand from viewers.

ANNE SCHELLE: They're wanting better quality. They're wanting 4K high dynamic range, which is now available for video, better audio quality and interactive services.

SEPIC: NextGen is the biggest change to broadcast TV since 2009, when stations shut down the analog signals that they'd been transmitting since the 1940s and transitioned fully to digital. The rollout of NextGen, also known as ATSC 3.0, began three years ago. Today, it's available to around three-quarters of Americans, mostly in major cities. It came to Minneapolis-Saint Paul a few months ago, and electronics buff Eric Koester was eager to try it out. He bought a NextGen receiver as soon as they hit the market. Koester plugged in an antenna and connected the box to his living room TV. With a remote, he tunes in the local ABC affiliate.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEAH MCLEAN: Hello, everyone. Glad you're with us here for 5 Eyewitness News at 4:30 today. I'm Leah McLean.

PAUL FOLGER: I'm Paul Folger. There is a lot going on right now. We want to get to meteorologist Matt Serwe.

ERIC KOESTER: So this app will connect to the tuner. And we can see what the ATSC 3 signal looks like.

SEPIC: The picture looks great, but Koester says it's still no better than the original digital channels. That's because most broadcasters still aren't producing shows in ultra-high definition. Then Koester changes channels and points out a problem that's bedeviled many NextGen early adopters. Some stations are encrypted.

KOESTER: If you tune in - try to tune in one of the other ones, we get unable to play channel; content protection required.

SEPIC: Anne Schelle with the broadcasters group says this content protection is needed to prevent people from copying shows and illegally distributing them online. And she notes that new TVs with built-in NextGen receivers don't have the blocked channel problem. She says makers of set-top boxes are working on software updates. But now NextGen faces another hurdle. Amid a patent dispute, electronics giant LG, a major backer of the technology, is pulling it out of its latest line of televisions. Consumer Reports electronics editor James Willcox says NextGen promises big upgrades for over-the-air TV, but he fears stations could limit viewers' ability to time delay shows and save recordings, which they've done for decades.

JAMES WILLCOX: It is giving broadcasters technological capabilities that they didn't have up until now. That's a concern, and consumer groups are sort of watching to see what happens with it.

SEPIC: After the first digital changeover 15 years ago, viewers had to upgrade their TVs or get a converter box. During this transition, the FCC is requiring stations to continue using the old format alongside the new one through mid-2027. Given the challenges with NextGen rollout, Willcox and other observers expect the FCC to extend that sunset date.

For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis.

(SOUNDBITE OF OFF / SIDE'S "SKYE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt Sepic