Television

There’s No Accounting for Taste

Longtime readers of this site know that I am almost universally appreciative of everything that Apple does. But over the last few years, there was one thing about Apple that has bugged me: their taste in music—and now TV shows—is pretty lame. I think this casts a shadow over their otherwise nifty products, which reflect a refined sense of taste in their hardware and software design that is unmatched. And now that they’re getting involved in TV and movie production, I worry about what they’ll produce.

iTunes Podcast Directory

Back in the summer of 2005, Apple first entered the podcasting game by integrating it into iTunes. Up until that point, listening to podcasts was an exclusive domain for nerds. It required third-party software: I used iPodder. It required some understanding of RSS and how it worked, and it required expertise in knowing where to find podcasts in the first place. I vaguely remember listening to a subscribing to a few podcasts back then. Some related to “budget rock” music, some to news and politics, and a bunch other nerdy fare. Suffice to say, these reflected my own personal tastes.

Apple's Podcast Directory, July 2005

Apple's Podcast Directory, July 2005

Apple sought to introduce podcasts to the masses when it integrated podcasts into iTunes 4.9, making it easier to add podcasts to your IPod. They also added Podcasts Directory to the iTunes Store, a feature that remains to this day. However, I disliked the store because it highlighted the podcasts of the big media companies, especially Disney, a media conglomerate that Apple has had a close relationship by virtue of Steve Jobs and Pixar. I wrote as much on the old, Moveable Type version of this site:

But what is most significantly different from all the various podcasting directories and the new iTunes is that its podcast directory spotlights the podcasts from large content producers. When you first open the directory, you’ll note the presence of the big media companies. When I opened the directory this afternoon, I got a podcast for ABC News and one for ESPN. Clearly, there’s an arrangement with Disney. But the other partnerships seem a bit more tailored for the iPod crowd’s tastes, according to Madison Avenue. There’s NPR affiliates (KCRW, WGBH), CBC, and Bravo’s Queer Eye. If you dig a little deeper, you can find a large number of independent podcasts, but it’s like finding that rare imported beer at your supermarket. You’re going to have to dig past all the Bud, Miller, and Coors to find it.

The popularity and variety of podcasts has exploded since 2005, although its rise has been uneven. While there have been podcasting stars, such as Adam Carolla and Serial and now Bill Simmons and The Daily, podcasting remains a relatively open platform with an wide variety of choices for every possible taste. Podcasting in 2018 is not wholly determined by the Podcast Directory of 2005.

Keep Music Personal

Another example of my distaste for Apple’s taste is the live musical performances integrated into many keynotes.1 I relish each and every keynote address and product launch Apple does. These are not just well-produced media events; they’re often studies in great theater. But I cringed, for example, when John Mayer came on at the end of the iPhone’s introduction at the 2007 Macworld Expo.

John Mayer playing at the Macworld 2007 keynote where the iPhone was announced / Photo by Derrick Story

It’s understandable if no one remembers Mayer playing this keynote. After all, he followed the introduction of what would become the most influential computing device in a generation, and no one can really tell you what else Apple also announced that day. I don’t have anything against John Mayer. I hear he’s a fine musician, and I feel bad that he had to follow the iPhone in the same way I feel bad that the Rolling Stones followed James Brown in The T.A.M.I. Show. But having these performances felt like Apple was trying to shove some middle-of-the-road rock music into our iPods and, later, our iPhones. Apple has continued this tradition with having Coldplay’s Chris Martin perform in 2010 and Sia take the stage in 2016. Neither is music that I would ever listen to on my own. And when these performances start, I always stop watching the keynote.

The public seemed most upset about Apple’s middle-of-the-road tastes in 2014 when they “bought” U2’s new album, Songs of Experience, and added it to everyone’s iTunes account. Undoubtedly there must have been some U2 fans who appreciated getting this album on their iPhones, but I think Apple overestimated the breadth of U2’s appeal. A lot of people were angry about this unwanted gift. Even if U2 was the most popular living rock band in the world, which they arguably were, I understand the backlash because, for years, Apple has marketed their devices as personal and adding U2 to everyone’s device seemed invasive.

I initially feared that Apple Music would turn out to be a disaster because they focused so heavily on the Beats Music aspect of it. I watched the June 2015 WWDC keynote with great interest, and the Apple Music introduction was by far the least impressive of all their announcements that day. Not only that, the Beats Radio stations and programs reminded me a lot of what we saw featured in the iTunes Podcasts Directory: a bunch of middle-of-the-road offerings that betrayed why I liked podcasts and streaming music versus terrestrial and satellite radio, and why I liked buying CDs online instead of the limited selection at the local music store.

If you watch the video of the Apple Music introduction, there’s something off-putting about watching Eddy Cue make playlists. His personal, eclectic taste isn’t mine. Did you just tell me to listen to Loren Kramar? Kramer, by the way, hasn’t released anything since the 2015 single that Cue demos.

There’s no way for me to prove this, but I think that Apple Music is succeeding despite Beats Radio not because of it. Apple Music is doing well because it lets users stream music in much the same way Spotify does, although I suspect Spotify’s recommendation algorithm is better than Apple Music because Apple kinda sucks at AI.

All Apple Music had to do to succeed was flawlessly allow subscribers to find and play whatever music they want, reflecting each user’s personal taste, not the middle-of-the-road taste that Apple seems to espouse.

Now, We Add Pictures to Sound

On a recent episode of the Upgrade podcast, Jason Snell and Myke Hurley reported that Bryan Fuller had left the Apple’s revival of the 1980s anthology TV series Amazing Stories. They speculated that Fuller left because he wanted the license to produce adult, dystopian programming, something like a Black Mirror on Netflix, but that Apple wants programming that is safe to show on a big screen in Apple Stores. They reason that this caused some creative friction between Fuller’s and Apple’s goals, and that led to Fuller’s exit.

Of course, nobody except Fuller really knows the exact “creative differences” that led him to leave the series, and Snell and Hurley indicate as much. But their reasonable speculative explanation shows that Apple has established a specific taste for content, and it’s not necessarily as groundbreaking as they might think it is.


  1. There’s also the comedic bits at the beginning of recent keynotes. While I normally like James Corden, I’d much rather listen to Craig Federighi tell some dad jokes about macOS than watch Carpool Karaoke with Tim Cook and Pharrell

Net Neutrality, but with Roadways

I’m about two weeks late in posting about Rob Bliss’s attempt to raise awareness about net neutrality. Bliss rode his bike and set up traffic cones to throttle automobile traffic outside the offices of the Federal Communications Commission. Like the Burger King commercial I posted about last month, the metaphor of the bicyclist causing artificial congestion isn’t the best way to explain what is wrong, even if it makes motorists angry because they can’t go as fast as they want without first paying a toll or running-down the pesky cyclist.

Allow me to offer a better metaphor of what driving would be like without a “net neutrality” for roadways. Say, for example, that Ford built all the roads in your town. Ford allows all Ford cars and trucks to drive on these roads as often as they want at no cost. However, if you own a Toyota and want to drive to the grocery store, either Toyota the automaker or Toyota drivers will have to pay a toll of some type. Perhaps, Ford has a deal with Honda, allowing Honda drivers to also use the Ford roads for no cost. But it comes with certain restrictions: anyone driving an Accord can only drive with two passengers and no cargo. Otherwise, those drivers will have to pay an additional toll or subscribe to an expensive unlimited driving and carriage plan. And what about Tesla? Would those cars ever get to even use these roads? Probably not. So everyone in your town will basically own only a Ford because it’s cheaper and simpler to just do that. And because there’s no competition for Fords in your town, everyone will have same set of crappy Ford cars and trucks, and Ford will have no incentive to ever make anything other than those same crappy cars and trucks.

I should note that Ford has actually been making better cars and trucks than it did over the last half-century, but that’s partly because they don’t enjoy the kind of dominance they once had and because they responded to competition from Asian and European automakers.

As is becoming clear, raising awareness of net neutrality is not as crucial as it was just a few years ago. It’s clearly a hot political topic. What we need to do is to act: to do whatever it takes—through legislation or litigation—to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for communication. The Internet belongs to no one, but in the United States, the final mile belongs to one of a few corporations, usually your cable provider or an incumbent telephone company. We must insure that the infrastructure owners do not get to regulate or dictate what content can be carried over that final mile. Otherwise, we’ll all be driving metaphorical Ford Pintos on the Internet.

And Then They Repealed Net Neutrality

Today, as expected, the Federal Communications Commission has voted to repeal its own net neutrality rules along partisan lines, by a vote of 3-2. And that wasn’t even the biggest news story in US media industries. Earlier today, Disney agreed to buy the movie and television assets of 21st Century Fox for over $66 billion in cash and stock. This deal has now pared down Rupert Murdoch’s one labyrinthine News Corp. media empire to a bunch of broadcast TV stations, the broadcast television network, and several cable TV networks. These moves have emerged in a climate of technological change but also of deregulatory moves ushered by Donald Trump’s FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Net Neutrality Rules Repealed

As I’ve mentioned before in a series of posts on this site, this is one of several deregulatory measures that this FCC, led by Chairman Pai, to give broadcasters and Internet service providers more power at the expense of consumer protections and the interest of the public.

Repealing the FCC’s net neutrality rules will make it possible for Internet service providers—your “beloved” cable and telephone company—to turn the Internet to something that could look like what we had with AOL in the 1990s: a closed network with curated content with limited access to the open Internet. The latter is what doomed AOL and its 2000 merger with Time Warner.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know that AT&T is attempting to acquire Time Warner and its vast library of media properties and content. With net neutrality rules out of the way, a provider like AT&T can realize its vision to dominate the Internet. Tim Wu, who coined the term “net neutrality” predicted as much in his 2010 book The Master Switch. Wu writes:

it doesn’t take a genius to realize that if AT&T and the cable companies exercised broad discretion to speed up the business of some firms and slow down that of others, they would gain the power of life and death over the Internet.

The telecommunications companies can do this because repealing net neutrality rules reclassifies broadband Internet service providers from common carriers to information services. The days of Internet-as-we-know-it might be numbered. At worst, it will be something like AOL in the 1990s. Or it will be something like cable TV and its curated 500-channel universe. Both were information services.

Centralize All Broadcast Activities

But it’s not just the Internet that Chairman Pai’s FCC has given over to the major corporate interests; he’s also cleared the way for broadcast station owners to expand their reach through out the United States.

Back in April, Chairman Pai led the FCC to restore the UHF discount rule, allowing owners of all-UHF stations to reach as much as 78% of all US households. As I wrote earlier, the UHF discount rule was developed in an era when US TV households mostly watched VHF channels 2-13 over UHF channels 14-69. The Obama-era FCC eliminated that discount on the grounds that the rule was deprecated. There is no difference in terms of VHF and UHF stations in today’s multichannel TV environment.

Also today, at the same Commissioners meeting to vote down the net neutrality rules, the FCC voted to review eliminating the 39% TV station ownership cap rule. This rule, designed to keep one station owner from reaching too many people through broadcasting, was already a relaxed version of the FCC’s original seven-station rule. But Chairman Pai apparently wants to allow broadcast station owners to reach even more American households and further reduce the diversity of voices using the public airwaves.

Both the UHF discount and the give Sinclair Broadcasting and the “New Fox” the opportunity to grow the number of broadcast TV stations they can own and expand their reach to US households. Not only could this have some competitive implications, it also forebodes some chilling ideological consequences. It’s not unlike what the Nazi’s chief propagandist 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.

Both Sinclair’s and Fox’s owners are both staunch conservatives and supporters of Chairman Pat’s boss Donald Trump and their news coverage has consistently supported Trump’s policies.

Take Action on Net Neutrality

Although I realize that the tone of this post is downright dreary, we the public can still take action to restore net neutrality rules. Basically, it comes down to fighting Chairman Pai on two fronts:

  1. We can lobby Congress to pass “net neutrality” legislation. Any action the FCC takes on classifying Internet service providers—as common carriers or information services—can be rendered moot through legislation. It might take until after the 2018 midterm elections to get this done, but legislation is the only way to guarantee an open Internet for the long term.
  2. Take the FCC to court. This is less than ideal because it must protect net neutrality rules within the current legal framework, which is not very specific about net neutrality. Nonetheless, Free Press plans to file a lawsuit against the FCC. I don’t know their legal strategy, but it might be on the grounds that the FCC has unlawfully abdicated its authority over the Internet. A lawsuit would likely lead to an injunction to keep the current net-neutrality rules in place. After that, prevailing in court could keep the Internet open, but as I wrote above, legislation is the best way to do it.

Now get going! It is only our freedom of speech and a robust marketplace of ideas that is at stake. Otherwise, we might as well be China.

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 

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.”

OS X-Files

I have been slowly catching up with the tenth season of the X-Files, otherwise known as the thing that Fox needed to air after the NFC Championship Game wrapped up in late-January.

The fifth and penultimate episode of the tenth season, “Babylon”, bears an uncanny resemblance to the recent events in San Bernadino and the aftermath of gathering information from one of the terrorists. In the episode, a couple of young Muslim men detonate a bomb an art gallery in Texas, exhibiting a painting that depicts Allah “sitting on a toilet defecating radical Islamists.” One of the suicide bombers barely survives the attack. The FBI is interested if he has any information about a larger terrorist cell or a possible future attack, but because he is in a persistent vegetative state and imminently close to death, he is not talking. To gather any possibly useful intel, Mulder and Scully each separately try to “listen” to his thoughts to uncover any useful information.

This reminded me of the FBI and Apple.

I’ll admit that it’s a bit of a stretch to relate this to the protracted battle between the FBI and Apple. In both the real-life and the X-Files cases, the FBI is seeking information from a “dead” terrorist. The real FBI is asking Apple to defeat its own security protocols to unlock his phone, while the TV FBI tries two different methods to read the bomber’s mind. To no one’s surprise, Mulder’s method seemed a lot more fun than Scully’s: we see a few familiar faces during “El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Mulder.”

I won’t spoil how they try to get the information or whether they succeed, but I wonder what kind of software can the FBI compel someone to write to read someone’s thoughts. Is that covered under the “All Writs Act,” too?

Becoming Mike Nichols, Reviewed

One of my first undergraduate film courses was a director’s class on Mike Nichols. As a nineteen year-old I didn’t know much about him other than he had directed The Graduate (1967), which I knew mostly because of the Simon and Garfunkel score rather than the film itself. On the first day of class, I learned that Nichols had a long career in theater and, that because the instructor, Meredith McMinn, also had an extensive theater background, she was interested in exploring the film work of a theater impresario. Nichols, who passed away in 2014, was still alive and working at the time, and this class was a rare opportunity to celebrate a filmmaker producing a new film at the time, just down the road in Hollywood.

Ultimately, I dropped the class in the second week. As a product of a working-class family, I was inherently suspicious of The Theater, and as a novice film student, I recognized that I should first take a history or genre class before delving into a “specialized master” class. I might have also picked up an extra shift at my campus job because, at the time, I could have really used the money. (Some things never change, I guess.)

Although I didn’t stick it out, I never forgot the two films we studied during my abbreviated enrollment: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and The Graduate, easily two of the finest films of the 1960s.

Those two films comprise the bulk of Becoming Mike Nichols a newly premiered documentary on HBO, which you can also stream on HBO Go and HBO Now. Documentary might not be the best description: it consists of two separate on-stage interviews with Jack O’Brien and is richly illustrated with photographs and extended clips from Nichols’s oeuvre. Think of it as an episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio with a bigger budget for rights clearance.

As the title suggests, Becoming Mike Nichols focuses on his early work. It allows the conversation to explore Nichols’s most formative and creative years. Though Nichols worked in both stage and screen over a six-decade period, the documentary only chronicles his early work in the 1950s and 1960s: his improv acts with Elaine May, his early stage work directing two very celebrated Neil Simon plays, and his learning the film medium with Virginia Woolf and The Graduate. The results of these on-the-job training exercises were nothing short of critical accolades in the form of Grammy, Tony, and Oscar awards.1 Would it glib to characterize Nichols as a “quick study?”

Becoming Mike Nichols smartly sacrifices breadth for depth. It was much more engaging to watch his reminisce about this early work than it would have been to review his later work. Wolf (1994) wasn’t a bad film, but it was not going to get you a master class, either.

Becoming Mike Nichols
A lively conversation between Jack O’Brien and Mike Nichols that focuses on the “best years” of the late director’s work on stage and on screen.

  1. He would get his EGOT in 2001 with an Emmy Award. 

Whose Fault is it Anyway?

Back in the days before Obamacare and mandatory health insurance coverage, underemployed “young invincibles” justified buying a health policy, which many of them would likely rarely use, to insure against an unforeseen catastrophe such as getting hit by a car. The prospect of mounting hospital bills, caused by such a calamity, alarmed a lot of people into getting covered.

But having been hit by a car while riding my bike, I can tell you that your personal health coverage does not normally cover you should you be hit by a car.1 The primary responsibility falls on an auto insurance carrier. If you get hit by a car while walking or riding a bicycle, the driver’s auto insurance is supposed to cover your bills and lost wages. At least that’s the case in a no-fault state like New York.

Here I am in California and, on TV, I see a spot for the state-run insurance exchange, Covered California.

The ad consists of a single shot, craning to follow an ambulance rushing to the scene of a injured bicyclist. On the right, there is an automobile that presumably collided with the bicycle and caused the rider to fall to the ground. The voiceover announces, “it’s more than just health care, it’s life care.”

But unless this was something changed in the Affordable Care Act since I was hit by car in 2006 and 2008 or something is different in California, I’m pretty certain that most health insurance policies would not cover the bicyclist, unless something is amiss with the driver’s auto insurance.

Or maybe it does now… Thanks, Obama.


  1. Your health insurance will cover you should the driver flee the scene, but you’ll have to file paperwork proving that.