Monday, February 24, 2014

Softly Comes The Censor

     Once again, The Most Tone-Deaf Administration In History* has shown how utter cluelessness can deliver a country up to its own worst nature, and with the very best of intentions--

     (And as long as your intentions are noble and good, nothing could possibly be wrong with results or go wrong on the way to them, right?)

     For most of us, the story starts in the Wall Street Journal, which published an opinion piece from FCC Commissioner(!) and Obama appointee (!) Ajit Pai.  The Commission generally serves quietly; it used to be a big deal to get even Newton Minow-esque growl from a serving FCC Commissioner.  Monow has said that the two words best remembered from his famous speech are "vast wasteland," but the two words he wishes would be remembered are "public interest."  Be careful what you wish for!  It appears that Minow-ism took root in the FCC's middle bureaucracy and has borne strange flower:

     Today's FCC, Commissioner Pai in the minority, has decided to ride Mr. Minow's wistful hope into the nation's newsrooms, starting with a "pilot project" in Columbia, South Carolina, in which "...the agency plans to send researchers to grill reporters, editors and station owners about how they decide which stories to run."

     It appears to be motivated be the very best sort of intentions and all manner of clever research design [PDF] -- and utter deafness to history.  Y'see, the FCC is concerned that newspapers, radio, the Internet and those horrid ol' commercial TV stations -- the ones that make most of their income from the ads run during local newscasts -- might not be giving you what you want and need.  So they plan to "ferret out information from television and radio broadcasters about 'the process by which stories are selected' and how often stations cover 'critical information needs,' along with 'perceived station bias' and 'perceived responsiveness to underserved populations.'"  That's Commissioner Pai again, who is as mystified as you or I how this could be done without any sort of chilling effect by the very same government body that approves TV station licenses and levies nice fat fines for saying bad words on the air or not having any way to relay Emergency Broadcast System messages.  Especially when they will be deciding just what news it is The People need, and then weighing news providers against that paradigm.

     Oh, and to add to the general air of snooping and snitching, the Feds plan on "interviewing" not merely ownership and management -- nope, they'll creep right into the tent newsroom and corner reporters and producers, just to make sure their bosses aren't making them cover up or ignore important news....  H'mmm, yeah, no motivation there to try'n dope out what the Feds wants and scurry around to have it done well before they show up, is there?

     Reading the report, I believe the wonks behind it really don't understand this; they honestly believe they will be as unobtrusive as wary little mice, a fly on the wall looking out for The Public Interest.

     See, when The Censor shows up, she'll have nothing so crude as a red grease-pencil or a razor blade.  She'll be wearing a nice business suit, not a brass-buttoned black uniform and shiny jackboots -- and she may well have no idea what she's really there to do.  It's the soft fascism of dim expectations.

     It's to be fought against.  Commissioner Pai knows that.  Good for him, but he's just one voice among the five Commissioners.  He'll be needing our help.
* But doesn't each one set new records for tone-deafness?


Ted N said...

My brain kept reading Commisar instead of Commissioner.

That happen to anyone else?

Robert said...

I know how the local station here decides what to run. It's "What news costs us the least money to gather?". Bonus points if it's actually national news they pull off the wire. The further away the story is geographically the better, it seems.

Out of a 30 minute newscast, you get two weather reports (1 of which is a mini report that talks about what the main report will be later in the program), a traffic report, an entertainment report about whatever the current snooki/jwow/miley/ clone is doing these days, and assorted other filler. You get about 5 minutes of actual local "news" in the whole thing. And then they repeat the whole thing twice more in a row for a total of 1:30 in airtime but only 5 minutes of news.

The Jack said...

I'm reminded of the "trial" Ezra Levant had up in Canada.

The woman doing the interview doesn't think she's being a censor with the force of the state but... there she is.

jed said...

This guy Pai seems something of an activist type. Did you see that he wants to revitalize AM? I wasn't aware that AM was unvitalized. Depends on your point of view, I suppose.

wv = thestabiE Hospital. Ouch!

Roberta X said...

Jed, AM stations are dropping like flies; I know of several that are off the air and unlikely to return, including one 50 kW station in a well-populated area.

There days, you'll find one doing okay, usually with a mix of news and right-wing talkers, a sports station keeping afloat, a gaggle of AM siblings to big FMs kept on the air by inertia and a flock of standalones that are one major equipment failure away from having to shut down, sell the land under the towers and hand the license back to the feds unless they can find some sucker to pay bottom dollar. Most of the AM siblings are in nearly the same boat but it's too much trouble to shut 'em down.

Drang said...

I believe they've rescinded this plan.

For now.

Roberta X said...

Not holding my breath -- I remember when they "rescinded" Total Information Awareness, too.

Joseph said...

Required reading: Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville

Anonymous said...

"It's the soft fascism of dim expectations."

POW! That is the best summary of the last five years.

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

@ Roberta: If AM radio is slowly dying out, is that portion of the spectrum something that could benefit by going digital?

I'm guessing, based on my admittedly limited knowledge of the subject, that the AM transmission method isn't conducive to digital, but could the frequencies be repurposed?

Roberta X said...

There's already digital there, Jake, though it's not very widespread. Some AM stations use an in-band, on-channel system -- "HD Radio" -- that is FCC-approved. It's not very well suited to the AM band, though, and there are issues with converting stations (they won't all fit!). But it's one of the things the FCC and the industry is looking at.

My local 50 kW station has it and it sounds great; they're one of the lucky stations, though, since they are directional and (for technical reasons) the extended bandwidth of the added digital signal has a hard time with some directional antenna systems, or perhaps vice versa. There's a lot of phase shift over the passband in the power divider, and it can make a real mess of the digital modulation.

Ian Argent said...

I assume that there is a physics reason that AM radio has not yet had their bands fed in to the voracious maw of cellular data the way UHF TV did. If not, that day is coming.
(Wikipedia suggests that this is in fact the case)

Roberta X said...

Yeah, you can't stuff an AM antenna into a celphone.

UHF-TV band is also a problem that way, despite antenna being a couple of orders of magnitude smaller. Most of the grabbed spectrum went to "public safety." Cell phones got some real estate around 2 GHz. by bribing my industry with all-new digital ENG transmitters and receivers.

Ian Argent said...

I thought the 700 mHz blocks came out of the old UHF TV allocations? Sez Wiki "UHF channels 52-69 were lost primarily to mobile telephony during the DTV transition." (I work in cellular data, and while I try and stay away from the actual physical layer, since I get the mental bends if I go that deep in the stack, I get the odd "layman's overview" in some training).

And while I don't see mobile phones sporting big whip antennas (or Yagis or what-have-you) on their own, cellular data isn't just magic elf boxes these days. Fixed devices don't care (as much) about antenna size, and they keep telling me machine to machine and fixed mobile are the future of cellular data. For that matter, if they can continue to increase effective bit rates via Pure Friendly Magic (seriously, my magic elf box has reliable 5 mbps just about everywhere I go; for someone who started with 300 bps modems on phones and CDPD in mobiles, that's some PFM right there), the lower frequencies may become useful for cellular applications; at which point; well, we'll see.

I don't expect things to proceed quickly, look at the blistering pace of analog TV shutdown. But I do expect that the vast majority of the radio spectrum will eventually be re-purposed to function as bidirectional packet data links in a cellular layout (whether owned by the descendents of the current mobile phone companies, the .gov, or orgs not yet imagined), and regardless of what the application layer looks like, because that's where the market for eyes, ears, and customers will be.

For a variety of semi-non-technical reasons, I expect OTA broadcast TV to be the first to go; DVRs and on-demand packet video killed the business model of broadcast content distribution in exchange for forced viewing of ads, and the only reason it's still shambling is inertia. Next, FM radio; if you can cram a usable FM-band antenna into a some of the things that the Walkman begat, you can put one in a magic elf box, and see above for economics. The only reason I don't put them ahead of broadcast TV is they have cheaper content production; but I could see it in the other order too.

(Disclaimer 'cause I gotta - this is all me, none of my employer, and all based on open-source info in the trade rags and suchlike)

Roberta X said...

I didn't realize the cel people got any of the 700 MHz spectrum.

OTA TV will stay longer than you think: A) It's got an excellent lobby and B) Politicians love the one-way, one-to-many nature of it. On the Internet, it's too easy for the masses to sass back.

As long as we have Dem administrations, AM radio is on the bubble: it leans too far the other way to suit 'em. Not that they'll admit it.

Ian Argent said...

Yeah, the 2008 auction was all about 700 mHz, and it was promptly used to deploy LTE.

Short term, I agree with you about OTA VHF TV, who have always had more money and influence than UHF did. I have to wonder, though, how many people and how much of their target audience still receives their content OTA, and what the trend line looks like there.

The UHF folks lost their spectrum because cellular wanted it, from what I see on the cellular side. The military is being pushed to give up and/or share their reserved spectrum for other uses, including cellular.

You've got more knowledge about the OTA broadcast side than I do, obviously, but the cellular industry conventional wisdom is that we need MOAR BANDWIDTH.

I am now leaning towards FM going under first, though. And neither this decade.