Categorized: Scholar

You Have a Choice, But It’s Basically AOL or Nothing

Right after I published my previous post about Chairman Pai’s FCC’s plan to kill net neutrality rules governing internet service providers, the FCC released details about the proposal the Commission plans to bring to a vote in December.

It’s even worse that I had thought. It looks like Chairman Pai’s FCC is setting up to allow Internet Service Providers to decide what content and websites its customers can visit and which ones it cannot. For anyone following the fortunes of Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T over the last few years will note that these companies have each acquired or are in the process of acquiring content companies. Most recently, AT&T plans to absorb Time Warner, ostensibly for the content it can provide the broadband and wireless service provider. Verizon did something similar when it acquired AOL and Yahoo and rebranded them Oath.

We’ve been expecting the single, unlimited broadband package to go away someday—either through throttling your connection speed or by capping the amount of data you send and receive each month. What might happen now is there could be at least two tiers of broadband service:

  1. a discounted AOL-type service where you get unlimited access to the content on that service
  2. a prohibitively expensive rate for a somewhat open service, like what we have now

At any rate, Chairman Pai is basically giving the monopolistic Internet service providers the opportunity to become all-in-one information services. Remember most of America has no choice in Internet service providers and unlike in the past, when there was a national telephone monopoly and local cable TV monopoly, the government provided some level of protections against monopolistic behavior. Not anymore.

It really seems like the Internet will again be like AOL. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The Lapdogs and the Carcass of Net Neutrality

The corporate lapdogs at the Federal Communications Commission are to announce this week—the week of the Thanksgiving holiday the United States—their scheduled vote on December 15 to eliminate the “net neutrality” rules that govern wired broadband Internet providers.

The timing of the announcement and of the scheduled vote is not accidental. The FCC is trying to sneak the announcement during a holiday week when the country is distracted and will take the vote on a Friday before the FCC commissioners presumably adjourn for 2017. As we know, because of Donald Trump, the FCC has three business-friendly Republican commissioners that will out vote the two Democratic commissioners. There’s every reason to expect the vote to be a mere formality.

Karl Bode posted a great essay on Techdirt about the vote predicting a strong public backlash against the FCC’s vote to kill net neutrality rules. I won’t reproduce his argument here, but I want to draw attention to the two reasons he foresees a revolt. First, the public overwhelming supports these rules because, as with the broadband consumer privacy protections the Senate killed earlier this year, this is not a partisan issue. Hardcore lefties and righties want these protective rules. Second, these rules will largely benefit broadband Internet providers: i.e., the deep-pocketed cable and telephone companies that rank among the most hated companies in America. Much like the Republican tax plans currently debated in both chambers of Congress, the benefits will go to the wealthiest and most powerful segments in our country. The rest of us will get screwed.

However, unlike Bode, I am less optimistic about a coming public revolt against this FCC and the broadband companies they are supposed to protect the public against. A lot of people don’t understand what net neutrality even is, much less other related concepts such as common carriage that are arguably more meaningful and noticeable to people on a day-to-day basis. The most immediate effect of ending net neutrality will be preferential treatment of partner services. As we’ve already seen, Netflix is fine with partnering with ISPs to ensure a clear path for its streaming video service. As long as people can still stream video on Netflix and Amazon, no one will really notice that their Internet will no longer be an open-platform.

Of course, the long-term effect will be much greater, even if its harder to identify. That’s because the next generation of Internet companies will have a harder time emerging. Someone might develop something we can’t even imagine yet that could threaten Netflix and Amazon’s dominance the same way each company all but eliminated the Blockbuster Video stores that profited with usurious late fees and the major chain bookstores that forced many independents out of business decades. But we won’t probably will never see those competitors emerge and, even worse, we may never even know they existed in the first place.

The votes that Chairman Pai has brought to the FCC over his first year as the Commission’s chairman benefit incumbents over future innovative upstarts. While this may have a short-term benefit for the large companies that employ thousands of workers and trade on the Dow Jones stock exchange, as Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T do, these actions will cost us in the long-term in lost innovation. The Internet communications revolution in the United States didn’t come from incumbent telecommunications companies. It originated from military, government, and university researchers working together—often in their spare time. Had we left it up to AT&T or RCA, our Internet would basically be AOL and what Sprint called the “wireless web.” As someone who remembers both these versions of the “Internet,” I wish I had never known they existed in the first place.

The Lapdogs Have Centralized All Broadcasting Activities

As expected, Chairman Pai’s FCC overturned the ownership regulations for broadcast stations that were instituted to curb a single voice from dominating the information landscape in radio, in broadcast television, and in print.

I wrote about these ownership regulations last month. The two regulations in question were:

  • the newspaper-broadcasting cross ownership rule that prevented a single company from owning a leading newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market
  • the duopoly rule that prohibited a single company from owning two TV stations in the same market, outside of the four largest markets where there are at least eight separate entities in that market.

These rules—if confusing—were once even simpler: no single entity could own more than seven stations each on AM radio, FM radio, and television. The intent of these rules was to prevent a single voice from dominating mass-media information flows in a given market and across the entire world. Without considering any public input, Chairman Pai’s broadcast-friendly FCC has eliminated these rules to allow a single company a larger and more widespread audience.

The obvious beneficiary of eliminating these rules is Sinclair Broadcasting. The right-wing owned broadcasting company is trying to acquire Tribune Broadcasting, and because Tribune owns so many broadcasting stations in the United States, the newly merged company would have been forced to sell some of those stations in order to comply with these rules.

Not anymore.

If you live somewhere where Sinclair does not have a presence, that is partly because of the FCC rules. The rules have worked to keep Sinclair from reaching the entire nation, thus (kind of) ensuring some kind of diversity in voices.

Not anymore.

It won’t be long until you start seeing those right-wing editorials—that are centrally produced by Sinclair—and inserted into every local newscast across the entire Sinclair chain as “must runs.”

Because the ownership rules are from a federal agency—not actual laws ratified by Congress and the President—they can instituted and rescinded with the will of the FCC Chairman and the president who appointed him. In this case, this is a gift that Donald Trump and his lapdog Ajit Pai have given to big business. As I noted earlier, Sinclair is a friend of Trump and his policies.

If you’re not concerned that a single voice will reach nearly every household in the US, you should be. Recall that the one of the first actions that the Nazi’s took when they came to power in Germany was to centralize broadcasting. As Joseph Goebbels wrote in 1933, “Above all, it is necessary to centralize all radio activities to place spiritual tasks ahead of technical ones, to introduce the leadership principle, to provide a clear worldview, and to present this worldview in flexible ways.”

If you want to take action to prevent this situation, I encourage you to contribute to Free Press’s Action Fund. Ten bucks should do. They plan to sue the FCC in court to stop these rules from being rescinded, likely on the grounds that they unfairly grant one company a presence in almost every US media market. The rules were implemented for this very reason, and they were in fact working.

Contribute to Free Press’s lawsuit against the FCC

OK Soda and the “Edge” of the Mass Market

Last week in my Media Criticism class, we studied Michael Curtin’s twenty-year old essay on “neo-networks.” The essay, “On Edge: Culture Industries in the Neo-Network Era,” argues that the US media industries in the 1990s had largely abandoned their mass-market approach to reaching audiences. Instead of producing and releasing something—a film, a musical recording, a television series—and hoping for a big hit, US media industries had largely turned to aggregating a varied collection of niche markets to retain or even expand their marketshare. He terms this “edge.”

By the 1990s, media industries were able to accomplish this through a nearly two-decade wave of media consolidation. A media company would acquire its competitors to release a variety of niche-market material, in addition to the mass-market hits that these same media companies for decades.1

  • A diversified film studio could distribute an independent film, in addition to a blockbuster or two. Fox did with its Fox Searchlight company.
  • A major record label that released a Top-40 record one day could, on another day, sign an underexposed musical act that likely released records through an independent label. DGC and Interscope Records released a fair amount of such music in the 1990s, under the umbrella of the Warner Music Group and Time-Warner. And a lot of the major labels had acquired boutique record labels to diversify their stable of artists.
  • In television, the cable TV networks that once threatened to undermine the entire commercial broadcast system were subsumed under many the companies that also owned broadcast TV networks.

If you can’t beat ‘em, acquire ‘em.

But despite the consolidation of ownership, the variety of media content that the media industries distributed had significantly expanded, particularly with niche genres2. The variety of records, films, and television programs was probably greater than ever before. You and I may have been watching or listening to something, but it’s likely not the same thing because there was so much out there to choose. This was a departure from the formula that media industries had used for decades. In fact, during the studio era of Hollywood, it was common for a movie studio to rely on an annual hit to sustain its financial health for the entire year. Hollywood studios had so effectively utilized this “block booking” system, forcing theater owners to take all of its films if it wanted to get the studio’s one big hit, that it was eventually declared illegal in the 1940s.

But by the 1990s, media industries had stopped doing that. Instead of going for one big hit, they were interested in getting a bunch of little hits. This approach, while seemingly inefficient, made a lot of sense and was copied in other industries. One example from a non-media industry is the Coca-Cola’s development of OK Soda in the early 1990s.

I had actually forgotten about OK Soda until I came across a reference to it in a Tedium essay about another failed-and-forgotten soft drink, Virgin Cola. OK Soda was an attempt to appeal to young people who were disillusioned with mass-market products and their attendant advertising. I was in high school in the early 1990s, and I can attest that it was downright unhip to drink plain Coke. Many of us who drank soda—which seemed like everyone at the time—drank something else: Mountain Dew, Mr. Pibb, Dr. Pepper, or Diet Pepsi.

From Coca-Cola’s perspective, this is a big problem. Consumers between 18 and 24 years of age are their most desirable segment of the soda-drinking market because, if for no other reason, if they drink Coca-Cola at that age, they’ll likely drink it until they die. Coca-Cola, and other large mass-market companies, likely saw the marketplace as consisting of two different groups:

  1. Those who drink Coca-Cola.
  2. Those who don’t.

Coca-Cola needed to capture this second group. In the 1980s, it had famously tried to shift its product to capture both of these groups. The result was New Coke (1985), and we all know what a catastrophe that was for Coca-Cola. But in the 1990s, the strategy to reach this second group had changed. Instead of changing its flagship project, Coca Cola would diversify its product line. It worked with the introduction Diet Coke (1982) and with the revival of Cherry Coke (1985), which was a drink that soda fountain “modders” had been selling since the 1950s. These products were sold alongside Coca-Cola Classic, not instead of it.

If you want a primer on what OK Soda was, Thomas Flight does a good job at effectively describing the product and its advertising campaigns.

My only quibble with the video is that Flight describes the marketing as “postmodern,” which literally made me shudder. No serious scholar has uttered that term in almost twenty years and those that did have since disavowed ever, ever calling something “postmodern.” A more precise way to describe the product and the marketing would be to call it “self-referential.” The ads draw attention to the fact that they are ads trying to make you buy OK Soda, and OK Soda draws attention that it is just a soda—one that is just “OK.”

OK Soda seemed to have based its entire existence on being self-referential.

The cans were decidedly unconventional in their design. They looked like cylindrical comics in a variety of different designs. They didn’t sport a uniform design, although they still have some references to Coca Cola in their red-and-white colors and all featured “OK.” The taste is decidedly different than Coca Cola.



OK Soda reportedly tasted like “suicide mix.” That jibes with my memory of the product at the time. Coca-Cola was doing with OK Soda in the 1990s what it did with Cherry Coke in the 1980s: acknowledged an inside joke and an open secret. With OK Soda’s formulation, OK Soda had officially endorsed the unofficial practice of mixing fountain sodas. Almost everyone I knew was “making” suicide mix at the time, but none of the soft drink companies—or even our own parents—knew that we were doing so. Or so we thought.

And yes, of course, there’s those ads. They were certainly different. I’d even go so far as to say that they were funny because they were so absurd, and they appeared smart because they were self-referential. But they weren’t “postmodern.”

In retrospect, the 1990s was a glorious decade. It was the first decade that we stopped worrying about nuclear war and the last decade where the music was good. The 1990s was also when the media industries got really good at targeting us with a variety of things to watch and listen—and drink. But as Michael Curtin argues in the beginning of his essay, this niche marketing created a situation where “the fire on [the] common hearth appears to be burning low.” The Internet was on the horizon and, as he concludes, “the changing technologies of communication…promise to subdivide the national audience and splinter the body politic.”3 We all know how that has turned out.

We haven’t agreed on anything since.


  1. Schiller, Herbert I. Culture, Inc.: The Corporate Takeover of Public Expression. Oxford University Press, 1989. 
  2. Curtin, Michael. “On Edge: Culture Industries in the Neo-Network Era.” Making & Selling Culture, edited by Richard Malin Ohmann et al., Wesleyan University Press, 1996. 189-193. 
  3. Curtin 181 

UnionDocs is Looking for Winter-Spring Interns, Apply by November 17

UnionDocs, the Williamsburg, Brooklyn–based center for documentary video production, is looking for interns who work in “some aspect” of film and video: curation, production, or film theory. Interns help with realizing UnionDoc’s mission to foster nonfiction media, programming, events, production, and storytelling.

Interns would have responsibilities that including:

  • event documentation
  • event planning
  • social media marketing
  • programming support

Interested students can read more about it on the UnionDocs website and complete an application. The Winter/Spring internships run from mid-January through mid-May. The deadline to apply is Friday, November 17.

Apply by November 17

Reformation Day, 500 Years After

Happy (belated) Reformation Day!

Yesterday was October 31, 2017, which not only was All Hallows Eve (“Halloween”), but it was also the 500th anniversary of the day when Martin Luther published his Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, better known as the Ninety-Five Theses.

Most people think that Luther posted his manuscript outside of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, and that this act led to the Protestant Reformation. While this is not untrue, this widely held myth is a version of the historical account that neglects the power of a new media technology: the Gutenberg printing press was developed in Germany about seventy years earlier.

Martin Luther and his Ninety-Five Theses had a great impact, but it wasn’t the act of posting outside a few churches that made the difference. It was that he sent his manuscript to the Archbishop of Mainz on October 31, 1517, and then copies were translated, printed, and distributed throughout Germany, as pamphlets and placards. The wide ranging impact was largely because of the printing press.

Stop Chairman Pai’s Big Media Giveaway

Yesterday, I posted a lengthy article about the FCC rules governing broadcast station ownership that the FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is trying to weaken.

If you read my article and were convinced that these rules should remain in place, you might consider signing Free Press’s petition asking the FCC to not weaken these regulations. Because the FCC is headed by three business-friendly Republican commissioners and two Democratic commissioners, it’s almost certain that the FCC commissioners will follow Chairman Pai’s directive, vote along party lines, and weaken these rules.

While it might seem that this is a partisan issue, it really shouldn’t be. No reasonable person wants a small number of people controlling our broadcast media. A plurality of voices is something that, I think, we all should want, regardless of partisan identification.

This petition is one of the few ways that we can make our voices heard because the rules that the Commission is seeking to relax and rescind on November 16, are being considered with no input from the public. I told you that Chairman Pai is a shady character!

Sign Free Press’s Petition: Stop Chairman Pai’s Big Media Giveaway

From a “Lapdog” to Running a “Whorehouse”

Back in 2015, I called then–FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai a corporate lapdog. He earned the nickname, in my mind, after he referred to his former Chairman, Tom Wheeler, as an “Obama lapdog,” although he didn’t directly make that statement. He had a few of his associates—Matthew Berry and Brendan Carr—do the name-calling for him. Pai and his proxies gave Wheeler this name because he sought to classify broadband internet service providers as “common carriers,” paving the way for what we commonly refer to as “net neutrality.” They accused Wheeler of being an Obama lapdog because he was following the pronouncements of the then-President of United States.

Ajit Pai, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission (FCC)

However, Pai, Berry, and Carr were truly acting like corporate lapdogs, following the commands of their masters in the broadcast and broadband industries. They were advocating on behalf of the telecommunications companies that provide broadband services at the expense of the public interest. Without net neutrality, ISPs can discriminate against certain websites and Internet services that might not be part of their corporate family or do not pay for “preferential treatment.”


Since Trump nominated Pai as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Chairman Pai’s FCC has done some shady things to further serve the interests of the broadcast industry, especially ones that support the Trump administration. Most notably, when the FCC was soliciting public comments on its website regarding its proposal to reclassify broadband as an information service, thus ending “net neutrality,” the FCC claimed that its public-comment website was down because it was the subject of a DDoS attack. It now appears that there is no proof that the site was attacked but instead was likely purposefully taken down to stop receiving comments from the public. During the last public comment period, the comments overwhelmingly supported net neutrality, which Chairman Pai is intent on dismantling.

Standing Together for #NetNeutrality

Chairman Pai’s FCC has been even more active in working for the broadcast industry. Lapdogs, as we know, can be quite loyal. He has taken aim at three regulations that were instituted at various times over the last ninety years to curb the influence of broadcast station owners.

The first is the station ownership caps. The idea behind instituting station ownership caps is to prevent one partisan voice from dominating the broadcast media throughout the country. Before the 1980s, no single company could own more than seven AM radio, seven FM radio, and seven television stations. However, those rules have been relaxed over the past four decades. The current rules are a little complex but they basically restrict a single company from essentially reaching more than 39% of US TV households. By the way, the rules for radio station ownership are even more complex, but there are almost no ownership caps on radio stations.

There is one way to get around the 39% rule, and that is through the UHF discount. In the US, television stations are scattered across two bands: VHF (2-13) and UHF (13-69). VHF stations dominated the airwaves for two reasons. First, VHF TV signals travelled further than those of UHF TV stations and provided a clearly picture and higher-fidelity sound. Second, VHF TV stations were more widely watched because those stations were either owned or affiliated with a broadcast network and thus carried the most popular TV programming of the day. The UHF TV stations were exiled in a kind of TV “ghetto” and were rarely profitable.

In order to provide some equity between VHF and UHF station owners, FCC instituted a “UHF discount” in the 1980s. Since UHF TV stations didn’t have the same reach as their VHF competitors, the UHF discount allows owners of UHF stations to count their stations as having only half of their actual reach. This was because UHF stations were less popular than VHF stations. However, this also allowed owners of all-UHF stations to reach potentially reach 78% of US TV households, compared to the intention of the ownership rules: no single entity could reach more than 39% of US households.

If you’re confused by the 39% rule and the “UHF discount,” you’re not alone. I honestly think the broadcast industry and their lobbyists purposefully make it complicated so that the public can’t understand and advocate against the interests of broadcasters. Their interests and the public’s interests are often at odds with each other.

The UHF discount was abandoned during the Obama administration because the digital TV transition in 2009 made the difference between a VHF and a UHF station almost meaningless. In fact, most network broadcast stations use a UHF frequency that the FCC gave to them at the turn of the millennium. The reasons for implementing the UHF discount no longer exist and the FCC under Obama closed this loophole, although there was a “grandfather” clause for station owners who were the 39% rule during the UHF-discount era.

In April 2017, in a move friendly to broadcast station owners, Pai’s FCC restored the UHF-TV station discount. Now, a single company can again effectively reach twice as many households with UHF stations than if it had only VHF stations. It’s worth noting that one company, the Sinclair Broadcast Group, owns and operates many local TV stations—mostly on the UHF band—around the US, uses its outsized reach to “inject right wing political views” into their local newscasts, and is a vocal support of Pai’s boss, President Trump.

Also, Sinclair is trying to acquire television stations owned by Tribune. Without the UHF discount, Sinclair cannot acquire those stations without divesting of some stations or abandoning the merger altogether. Restoring the UHF discount clearly benefits Sinclair and would expand the reach of its right-wing propaganda. Chairman Pai’s move to restore the UHF discount has drawn the ire of one of his fellow commissioners. Jessica Rosenworcel has called for an investigation into the FCC and Chairman Pai’s “push for rules changes and policies that seem ‘custom-built’ to benefit the Sinclair Broadcast Group.”


The FCC has other rules to prevent the influence of a single partisan voice: newspaper-broadcast cross ownership rule and the TV duopoly rule. The cross ownership rule restricts a single entity from owning a newspaper and a broadcast station in the same market. Instituted in the 1970s, this rule also has a grandfather clause and allows for some case-by-case exceptions. Most notably, the right-wing News Corp was exempt from this rule, allowing it to own its Fox broadcast station (WNYW) and two newspapers—the New York Post and the Wall Street Journal.

The duopoly rule prevents a single company from owning more than one television stations. Again, this is to curb the influence of a single partisan voice throughout multiple television stations. Of course, those rules have been relaxed in the largest media markets—New York and Los Angeles, for example—where there remain at least eight different station owners. In those markets, almost all the major networks own more than one TV station.

Duopoly Owner New York Los Angeles
CBS WCBS 2 and WPIX 11 KCBS 2 and KTLA 5
Comcast NBC WNBC 4 and WNJU 49 KNBC and KVEA 52
21st Century Fox WNYW 5 and WWOR 9 KTTV 11 and KCOP 13

Chairman Pai wants rescind both these rules at the FCC’s next open meeting on November 16.

Rescinding these rules would be “great” for business, leading to layoffs and media consolidation. It would reduce the diversity of opinions in markets throughout the US and allow for committed partisan voices to influence local and national politics. If you wonder why our country is so politically divided, a lot of has to do with the waves of deregulation and consolidation that we have seen the 1980s.

Chairman Pai—and deregulators like him—claim that the rules are “out of date” or “obsolete” and that these ownership regulations should be relaxed or rescinded. But why stop at these “out of date” rules? Why not go after all the rules?

Chairman Pai has not yet targeted a couple of other longstanding rules. The dual network rule prohibits any of the Big Four networks—Fox, ABC, NBC, and CBS—from owning one of the others. This was instituted to prevent one network from wielding too much influence over the broadcast TV, as NBC did when it owned a Red and a Blue network. However, the rule does not prevent a network from either owning outright or holding a stake in a minor network. Fox’s parent company owns the My Network TV, and NBC’s parent company owns Telemundo. Chairman Pai is just getting started gutting regulations, and it’s not unreasonable to think that his FCC would relax or eliminate this rule.

Another rule that recognized the power of broadcasting was the citizenship rule. A broadcast radio or television station owner must be a US citizens. This was done to prevent a foreign power from influencing our country through these powerful communications media. Given that Russia already influenced our presidential election in 2016 using mostly Internet advertising and bypassing the entire broadcasting infrastructure, I don’t see why Chairman Pai wouldn’t also abolish this rule since it’s clearly “out of date.”


The FCC does more than just regulate indecent speech on broadcast TV and radio. One of its core missions is to promote the “public interest” and has historically done so by instituting regulations that limit the influence one person or company can wield using broadcast media.

It’s only been about fifteen years since I understood what the FCC actually does and have followed the actions of its commissioners. I also know the history of some of the FCC most famous commissioners, such as Reagan’s Mark Fowler and Kennedy’s Newton Minow. Trump’s Ajit Pai seems to be running the commission in the mold of John C. Doerfer—the FCC Commissioner under the Eisenhower administration. Like Pai, Doerfer instituted many rules and policies that benefitted the broadcasters, almost always at the expense of the public interest. Doerfer’s tenure as FCC Commissioner came to an end after it was discovered that he had accepted trips and gifts from industry executives. Doerfer was an extraordinarily corrupt commissioner, and he haunts the history of the FCC. Historians have even given Doerfer-era at the FCC it’s own name, and it’s not a flattering name.

It’s known as the “Whorehouse Era.”

J. Hoberman Presents “Against Riefenstahl” at Light Industry

It’s been a while since I’ve linked to an event at Brooklyn’s Light Industry. That’s partly because I don’t live within a two-minute walk, and I have an evening class on Tuesday nights, which is when their events are usually scheduled. If I can’t attend, how can I reasonably expect you to attend?

But this coming Tuesday, October 17, there’s a pretty special event. Celebrated film critic J. Hoberman will be at Light Industry to present three World War II-era film in a program titled “Against Riefenstahl.



The first film is an abridged version of Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 cinematic love-letter to Adolph Hitler and the Nazis as they consolidated power in Germany. The notes on the website detail how the film reached the attention of American film viewers, including Iris Barry, the first film curator at the Museum of Modern Art. The films that Barry curated are considered the first canonical works of film scholarship. MoMA edited a 45-minute version—a kind of “documentary of the film itself”—that circulated throughout the US in the 1940s.

The film apparently caught the attention of Hollywood film director Frank Capra. According to the screening notes, Capra regarded the edited version of Triumph as the “most impressive propaganda movie he had ever encountered,” incorporating material from the film in his own Why We Fight? series of propaganda films made for the US military between 1942 and 1945 to train newly enlisted and drafted US soldiers.

The film also caught the attention of Charles Ridley, of the British Ministry of Information, who edited a print from the British Film Institute to create a satirical look at Hitler and the Nazis: The Lambeth Walk (1940). This short film that includes and manipulates segments from Triumph and sets it to a song from the time to create a humorous “dance” film, where Hitler and Nazi soldiers appear to “dance” the Lambeth Walk, a popular dance of the time. Having screened this film in class several times, the films retains its sharp comedic and critical bite, nearly eighty years after it was made.

The program will look at these three “derivative works” created from one of the most notorious films ever made: an extremely beautiful and well-made film that celebrates the most evil and murderous regimes in history.

Against Riefenstahl

  • October 17, 2017
  • Light Industry, 155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn
  • $8.00

The University of California Press, or Another Case of Why Academic Publishing is Doomed in the Digital Age

I’m currently reviewing Hollywood, 1938, written by Catherine Jurca and published by University of California Press, for adoption in the American Film Industry course that I sometimes get to teach.

Since I am low on space and constantly on the move, I requested an electronic book. UC Press used the Vitalsource platform for this particular electronic book. I see the logic in using this platform for review copies since it allows them to control the distribution of the book. For example, should an instructor not adopt the book, the publisher can revoke access—or more likely, set an expiration date—so that the instructor doesn’t get a free book. Notably, UC Press sent me a DRM-free review copy of Precarious Creativity, but that book was licensed by a Creative Commons license and did not have “all rights reserved.”

I’ve been an outspoken critic of how academc publishers misuse electronic books. More often than not they commit one of two crimes:

  1. They saddle to book with so many digital rights management restrictions that the book is unusable. One common scenario is when the ebook application requires an internet connection to access your library, but because you are—for example—flying in airplane or trapped in a subway train, you can’t read a book that you paid for.
  2. They merely reproduce the pages of the print edition and put those on your device. That usually works except on a mobile device, such as a smartphone. I could be wrong, but I think there’s a few college students that own smartphones. I wonder if they wouldn’t mind reading their textbooks on a device they own.

In this case, the University of California Press committed both.

First, they using Vitalsource, a platform that makes it difficult as possible to open a book because it imagines every possible scenario where “unauthorized access” might occur. They should obviously take the opposite approach: imagine every possible scenario where someone might want to use your product. Even a seasoned veteran encountered an issue where I had to deauthorize my old iPad Air so I could read this book on my new iPad Pro. It wasn’t a difficult task, but it was certainly inconvenient.

Second, the book is unreadable. To their credit, whoever adapted this book for electronic distribution seemed to consider that the most natural way to advance through text is through vertical scrolling, as one does when reading a webpage or when looking through a social media feed. Instead of flipping virtual pages, you can advance through the entire text of a chapter by scrolling vertically. However, the text of this book is so small it is unreadable.

An entire nine-line paragraph is a mere two-and-a-half centimeters tall. Thankfully, you can enlarge the text. There’s a hidden menu that allows you to resize the text.

Can you find how to enlarge text?

Increasing the size helped a little bit, but it didn’t add any room to the tightly spaced text, as one can do with the EPUB format. Yes, I wear glasses, but I feel I still have pretty good eyesight. However this ebook strained my vision to where I couldn’t read beyond the first paragraph.

There was one function however that did make “reading” the book much easier. Vitalsource will allow you to speak the text. Some reading apps, such as Instapaper, have the same feature. It works for short works, such as news articles or blog posts. However, having a computer voice read to you for extended period of time ruins my experience of imagining the author detailing the historical moment and constructing an argument about Hollywood in 1938. And when you’re being read to aloud by a computer, it also elicits some confused and puzzled looks on the faces of various passersby.

The above link to Amazon is an affiliate link. Shopping through that link will kick back a referral fee to me, which I feel I deserve after having to endure reviewing this terrible ebook format.