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SAG Awards and the Future of Spectrum-Based TV

As over-the-air (OTA) "free" TV prepares for its biggest event, the Superbowl, this weekend, it just received bad news last weekend from the annual Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards®. As in the Emmys and the Golden Globes, OTA TV is getting very small shares of these awards for programming excellence. As we wrote in September 2013 after the OTA crowd did poorly in the Emmys, maybe there is something basically wrong with the OTA TV business model of NAB's members today? Or perhaps the leaders of the broadcasting industry are spending too much effort on regulatory and legislative games rather than focusing on producing the programming that is attractive to the American public?

When your blogger started working at FCC in 1979 it was clear the biggest power brokers at FCC were NAB, Motorola, and (the then) AT&T. Motorola certainly has nothing near that status or market size today and a likely cause is that it tried repeatedly to use FCC regulation to maintain its market dominance rather than competing on technology and products. Perhaps the NAB membership is guilty of the same violation of the free market system? Will they meet the same fate?

So here are the SAG awards this year for TV. Of the 9 awards one went to PBS and one went to ABC - none to any of the other OTA TV broadcasters. Netflix got 3 awards and HBO got 2.

Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series

Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Comedy Series

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Drama Series

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Drama Series
KEVIN SPACEY / Francis Underwood – “HOUSE OF CARDS” (Netflix

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Comedy Series
JEFFREY TAMBOR / Maura Pfefferman – “TRANSPARENT” (Amazon)

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Comedy Series
UZO ADUBA / Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren – “ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK” (Netflix)

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries

Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries
IDRIS ELBA / DCI John Luther – “LUTHER” (BBC America)

Outstanding Action Performance by a Stunt Ensemble in a Comedy or Drama Series

Source: Variety


FOIA Problems@FCC

A House committee recently released the report shown at left on FOIA practices in the federal government. As is typical these days in Washington the report is rather partisan, but is well documented. Several agencies are discussed, but FCC gets plenty of attention particularly with respect to its redaction practices. Sound familiar? We have been talking about it here for a while!

The House committee got 200 FOIA releases from FCC along with the unredacted original documents. An
attachment to the report contains all 200 documents in both versions - although personal information is missing from the "originals" that are released. (Whether on not releasing such documents in large numbers was proper for the House committee to do we will leave to real lawyers.)

Here is a statement in the report about FCC redaction practices:

The FCC’s tendency to over-redact makes it difficult for requesters to understand what the agency has provided them, and consequently,to make follow up requests. For example, in response to a request from Vice News reporter Jason Leopold, the FCC withheld 1,900 pages in their entirety under exemption five. These redactions demonstrate a lack of responsiveness to the public’s right for information. The agency either misunderstands how to use redactions, raising concerns of competency, or the agency intentionally misuses redactions, raising concerns of integrity. Given the numerous examples in which the FCC improperly redacts information, this may be a deliberate tactic to withhold information from the public.

We fully agree.

One thing that is puzzling about the FCC documents in the House attachment is that they all have all the deletions marked with exemption numbers. It is clear that in the past FCC has at best been inconsistent with such markings. For example here is a FOIA previously discussed here from the FCC Inspector General:


See any redaction markings with exemption numbers as required by law? Section 12 of the OPEN Government Act of 2007 requires that “the exemption under which the deletion is made, shall be indicated at the place in the record where such deletion is made.” While some FCC FOIA releases have had such redaction markings, many have not. Since FCC only makes public a tiny fraction of such releases - possibly itself in violation of 5 U.S.C. § 552(a)(2)(D) - it is not clear what the marking compliance rate actually has been.

Were some of the the 200 FOIA releases given to the House committee doctored before they were sent so that they all appeared to be compliant with the statutory exemption number marking requirement? How else do you explain perfect compliance when other released FOIA documents in recent years, like the IG release shown above, have a spotty compliance record?


Recent News Items on OTA Broadcast TV

Reading today's hometown newspaper, the TV Highlights column at left caught my attention. For a long time our local paper had included in reviews and recommendations non broadcast video sources such as HBO and Netflix, but this was the first time that I, at least, noticed a nonsubscription streaming service such as Crackle - "Your source for free streaming entertainment". Now Crackle in some ways is not that different than YouTube, in that both offer free video, sometimes with advertising.

But now a major newspaper is placing them in the same category as NAB members and multibillion dollar HBO and Netflix. Wow!

Then I noticed the tweet below from @bcbeat = Broadcasting & Cable magazine. Those of us who have been along for a while remember when Broadcasting magazine, the predecessor of today's Broadcasting & Cable, under the late Sol Taishoff, was the TV broadcasting industry's biggest cheerleader. It didn't cover broadcasting news, if was more like today's Fox News' relationship with conservative Republicans and Sol played the Rupert Murdoch role. Today B&C includes "cable" in its name, dropped all coverage of radio broadcasting, and is owned by NewBay Media, a publishing firm also in several other areas of media business publications.

Note that the B&C tweet very visibly reminds readers of the embarrassing detail, reported previously here, that mainstream OTA broadcasters are getting smaller and smaller shares of the annual Emmys. Who knows, maybe Crackle will become eligible soon?

Then I was listening to NPR last week and heard a story from their TV reviewer:

When it came to new programming, broadcast TV didn't impress critic David Bianculli much this year. But if you add in cable and streaming services, then the story changes.

All told, cable and streaming made it "another great year for TV," Bianculli tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. The year was so good, in fact, Bianculli says he could have made a Top 20 or even a Top 30 list, but in keeping with tradition, he has narrowed it down to 10 — OK, fine, 11 — picks:

Bianculli's picks are here. They include "The only show from broadcast TV on my Top 10" - The Good Wife as #4. AMC and FX had 3 shows each, Comedy Central 2 , and Amazon and Showtime had 1 each.

So with the incentive auction coming up, we hope industry will consider why there is a flurry of such news stories. Is it a CTIA conspiracy or is it just the "writing on the wall"?


Concerned that we are unfairly dissing the content of OTA TV?

I was watching NBC's Today Show New Year's morning on my DVR. (See, I do watch some OTA! But usually on my DVR since most of the commercials are so annoying.) At 7:42 AM they had a segment on "What to Watch For in TV, Music, & Movies" in 2016. The person interviewed was Ms. Meeta Agrawal, Deputy Editor of Entertainment Weekly. Her recommendation for TV: USA Network's Mr. Robot.

Now I realize that USA Network is part of the same NBCUniversal that brings you the Today Show and owns the NBC affiliate in DC, but with a straight face could they have mentioned some OTA show as something great to watch for 2016? Despite all the great cheering from NAB and the kowtowing from FCC commissioners, isn't OTA TV losing to other video alternatives because of the quality of the programming they offer - independent of any spectrum policy issues?


The Importance of Remembering to Use an Anonymous Burner Phone

Readers may recall that "burner" cell phones have been a recurring issue here. These are "prepaid" cell phones that can be purchased at stores like Walmart or Best Buy by the dozen — without any identification and then used totally anonymously. Perfect for criminals, terrorists, and philandering partners. In many other countries prepaid phones are allowed but only with identification at purchase time. People who travel overseas and try to buy SIM cards for their US cell phones to avoid high roaming charges are well of this and the need to bring a passport when buying SIMs in many countries.

In the US you need valid ID to buy Sudafed and related decongestants because they can be used to make crystal meth. You need an ID to buy large amounts of nail polish remover because it can be used to make explosives. But no ID is needed for cell phones. The lack of routine data on cellphones that would be available in other countries has resulted in DEA buying from AT&T access to the Hemisphere database that “covers every call that passes through an AT&T switch — not just those made by AT&T customers — and includes calls dating back 26 years”. So this policy does not protect privacy, it leads to more invasive law enforcement invasions of privacy.

For many years Tracfone was the largest provider of burner phones, perhaps it still is. Like all providers Tracfone requires some registration before a newly purchased burner can be used. But making up false names for dozens of burners can be such a pain so Tracfone allowed a shortcut for that market segment. See the last line in the signup form that used to be on Tracfone's website? "If you wish to skip this step, please click here"

(Formerly on Tracfone website)

But now Tracfone and others require you to at least make up a false name and address. Oh, for the good old days!

But "Affluenza" teen Ethan Couch, shown above, was apparently not as smart as your average drug dealer. He should have studied Breaking Bad more carefully! CNN reports that he was tracked down based on use of his cell phone. Ethan, making up false names and entering them on carriers' websites takes time, but it is worth it. Be thankful this is the USA. No one in the US requires ID to purchase even dozens of cell phones as opposed to Sudaphed and nail polish remover. Indeed, while Title VII of the USA PATRIOT Improvement and Reauthorization Act of 2005, P.L. 109-177 limits the amount of Sudafed you can purchase, there is no limit to how many cell phones you can buy at a time in the USA. Ethan, you should have stocked up on your way to Mexico!

But, Ethan, when you get back into a US prison you can be certain that genuine burner phones will be there for your use. They are the contraband phone technology of choice for incarcerated criminals! And since FCC is moving at a glacial pace in Docket 13-111, not to mention the petition filed by a large group of state corrections officials more than 6 years ago in July 2009, the burner phones you find there will probably work well. Even in isolated rural maximum security prisons the cell phone industry has convinced FCC than only a "silver bullet"-like quixotic technology yet to be finalized poses a low enough risk to their service that FCC could allow it to disrupt prisoners from running criminal enterprises or ordering murders of witnesses. (At least CTIA has removed from its website a video from a former high ranking official there that claimed, based on an incident in Brazil, that any prison cell phone jamming could disrupt cell phone services miles away!)

We sincerely hope that there is never a cellphone-activated IED attack on US soil. But we are certain that if this were to ever happen that the types of political forces that prompted the original PATRIOT Act would promptly require draconian limits on "burner"/prepaid phones. We hope that the FCC and the cellular industry have a rational contingency plan for doing this so that legitimate uses of prepaid phones by millions of users is not disrupted by the antisocial uses that the industry now condones. And if you have such a plan, why not phase it in now?


Lest you think I was too hard on Tracfone above, here is the first paragraph of Sean Penn's "El Chapo Speaks:A secret visit with the most wanted man in the world" from Rolling Stone:

It's September 28th, 2015. My head is swimming, labeling TracPhones (burners), one per contact, one per day, destroy, burn, buy, balancing levels of encryption, mirroring through Blackphones, anonymous e-mail addresses, unsent messages accessed in draft form. It's a clandestine horror show for the single most technologically illiterate man left standing.

(The spelling of "TracPhones" in the article says something about Rolling Stone's attention to detail which might also explain their mess with their UVA article on the fraternity party. But it is clear which carrier they are talking about.)


Something CTIA and Wi-Fi Community Might Agree On


These days CTIA and the Wi-Fi community don't seem to agree on much due to the ongoing LTE-U/Wi-Fi controversy. But here is something that they are both likely to agree on for this weekend: Let's hope that FCC's total abdication of interest or responsibility for any aspect of drone spectrum issues does not result in spectrum chaos this weekend in the cellular bands and/or Wi-Fi bands, but possibly other bands if the drones marketed in the US are as noncompliant with spectrum emission rules as the drones marketed in Europe.

Readers may recall that we reported 10 days ago on the EU study shown at right that found high EMC noncompliance rates in the European market. Do you think Asian manufacturers are more careful with models destined for USA because they fear FCC enforcement?

This EU report observed what has been previously discussed here about the interference potential of drones that are not properly regulated:

Signals transmitted from the air to the ground have a significantly bigger coverage area than from the ground. Therefore, interferences generated from RPAS could have a major impact on radio communication. This means that there is a higher risk of harmful interference if RPAS systems do not meet the essential requirements.

So let's hope that the huge number of new drones that will be airborne this weekend do not result in spectrum chaos due to their location at altitudes that were not expected by cellular planners and Wi-Fi users or from out-of-band emissions. And let's hope that if they do cause interference that FCC will respond more quickly and decisively than it did in the case of "cellular boosters", police radar detector interference to VSATs, or the ongoing FM harmonic interference to 700 MHz LTE base stations - which FCC has never made a public pronouncement on.

Perhaps serendipity might save the spectrum community this time from chaos. But really, is this the way to protect multibillion dollar industries that are deeply tied to our society and economy? Should we have an FCC that can pay attention to issues other than corporate merger review and finding more spectrum for cellular carriers?

After the holidays, readers might want to review my TPRC paper this year that deals with FCC productivity shortfalls in spectrum policy and argues that they result from BOTH resource shortages and an inability for the FCC's "8th Floor" to understand they have to delegate some issues more in order to keep up to the magnitude of their job in today's IT focused world. (General Motors board of directors does not review every design detail of next year's Chevy because they could not keep up with their strategic responsibility if they did. FCC's commissioners need to develop a more collegial relationship and decide which issues are "bottom line" for they and need limited availability en banc deliberations and which can be left to staff under agreed guidelines like Ofcom has with its staff.)

And let's all pray we avoid spectrum chaos this weekend. Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season!