Corporation for Public Broadcasting logoThis is depressing. Just a couple of weeks ago, an FCC commissioner wanted to revisit educational program requirements for broadcast TV stations, pointing to local PBS stations as the proper substitute. Today, the president’s proposed 2019 budget eliminates funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which subsidizes those local PBS stations.

As described by Ted Johnson in Variety, the previous year’s budget tried the same trick, but fortunately “funding survived, which is a testament to just how much of a wish-list the White House budget really is, as opposed to something that will actually gain traction on Capitol Hill.”

Patrick Butler, president and CEO of America’s Public Television Stations, said he hoped that Washington would see that “we provide the only preschool education for more than half of America’s children, that we are the backbone of public safety communications networks at the local, state and national levels, and that we do more to equip America’s citizens to do the hard work of democracy than anyone else.”

I’m surprised that anyone has to explain this, but education is a societal investment. Kids with hope and knowledge grow up to become productive taxpayers. Kids who see no way out become unhappy burdens to society. Let’s hope that Congress again recognizes that a small outlay today can prevent huge outlays for years to come.

NBC PyeongChang 2018 Olympics logoSpeaking of 1992, as I was just a few days ago, in that same winter I participated in a survey about a special cable-TV package for the Olympics that was coming up that summer. Of the possible names, I picked the Olympics Triplecast, which was what NBC went with. They thought that two million households would pay $95 or more to see three channels of live coverage from Barcelona rather than waiting for prime-time, tape-delayed Olympics programming for free. Only about 200,000 subscribers paid for what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “the biggest marketing disaster since New Coke”.

Which brings me around to the 2018 Winter Olympics, which begin in a couple of days, and how to watch. Most the options are based on one question: What parts do you want to watch, and how much are you willing to pay to watch them? Maybe that’s two questions.

The Tablo blog suggests that you might be able to get by with free over-the-air TV, especially if it’s recorded on your Tablo receiver. But NBC will be sharing Olympics coverage with some of its other pay-TV channels. As broken down by Sports Illustrated, NBC will offer 176 hours of events during the 18-day PyeongChang games, NBC Sports Network will have 369(!) hours, and USA Network and CNBC will fill in a bit with 40 and 46 hours respectively. (Ironically, NBC’s Olympics channel will have no event coverage, just a few hours a day of news and highlights.)

Among streaming services, Sling TV Blue will give you NBC Sports Network and USA for just $25/month. CNBC is part of Sling Blue’s News Extra add-on, another $5/month, so you could see whether those few events are worth it to you. DirecTV Now makes that choice for you, including all three in its most basic Live A Little package at $35/month. Ditto for YouTube TV‘s standard $35/month plan. Fubo TV has all three in its basic $45/month tier.

Then there’s Hulu. Its $40/month “Live TV experience” includes all of those networks and access to its library of TV shows and movies. Mallory Locklear of Engadget reported that Hulu Live customers will be able to build a personalized schedule of the events they care about. “For example, users selecting luge and freestyle skiing as their favorites will see coverage of those events appear up top in the Olympic Winter Games section of the Hulu UI.”

Compared to the Triplecast, today’s over-the-top streaming viewers get more coverage for less than half the cost, not even considering inflation. If I don’t need to watch the Olympics live, then recording broad swathes of NBC on my Tablo would probably work, letting me skip past the puff pieces and the sports I don’t want to watch. On the other hand, I’m really happy with my basic Sling Blue subscription, and I’ll find out just how much curling and ice hockey it will give me.

As you might have heard, the Super Bowl returns to Minneapolis this Sunday. I’ve just got to tell you about my brush with greatness and other stories from when I attended the previous Minnesota Super Bowl in 1992. Despite what you’ll read below, I had a great time.

The January before, I had won a Super Bowl travel weekend, including tickets, at a drawing at a Kansas City sporting event. The folks there took my contact information, mailed me a letter of congratulations, and then … nothing. Months went by with no further information. I called over the summer and again in the fall and was always told that the travel package was all lined up and they’d let me know the details closer to the game. That December, I became more insistent and finally caught the ear of an executive who seemed to realize that not following through would be bad for his very public business. Finally, the wife and I got our tickets, though the last-minute lodging turned out to be the kind of rundown motel that had mold on the Ivory soap in the bathroom.

It was very cold, never higher than single digits. We bundled up in layers, but standing in line for an hour next to the snow sculptures at the St. Paul Winter Carnival, waiting for a turn on the ice slide, taught us that we were insufficiently insulated. After our exhilarating luge, we stumbled over to a downtown department store to upgrade our boots. We had learned that Minnesota cold is best experienced in smaller doses.

A small band performs before standing crowds

A pep rally in one of the enclosed shopping areas in downtown Minneapolis

Transportation that weekend was limited to official buses, since every rental car was taken. On Game Day, they brought us to downtown Minneapolis, where the tall office buildings are linked by a series of tunnels and enclosed pedestrian bridges. In separate shopping atriums (or atria, if you prefer), there were pep rallies for fans of each of the two teams, Washington and Buffalo. It was very crowded and very noisy.

The wife and I took a break from the masses and walked outside into the unforgiving air. Just then, a man in a dapper trenchcoat came around a corner, glancing behind him. With our ears still a little numb from the aural assault we had left, the wife said just a little too loudly, “That’s Jim McKay!” The legendary sportscaster turned to us, startled and wide-eyed like a cornered animal. Then he dashed away, moving very well for a 70-year-old man, followed by the gaggle of fans he must have been trying to duck away from. Sorry about that.

When the time came, we walked over to the Metrodome. We walked a gauntlet of protesters (against Washington’s nickname), souvenir sellers, promotional products (a branded fake snowball? why?), and increasingly desperate ticket scalpers. After the game started, I heard that their price eventually dropped below the $150 face value to $100 per ticket, which was disheartening to the hardcore Washington fans next to us who had paid $1400 for a pair the day before. I brought along a camera and my Sony Watchman portable TV for replays and highlights. Now everyone has a video screen and camera in their pocket, but in 1992, they made me very popular in my seating section.

Washington lining up at the 3-yard line

A zoom-lens view of Super Bowl XXVI from my seat in the upper corner

Blowouts were the rule for over 20 years of Super Bowls – XI through XXXI – a period when only three of the games were decided by a touchdown or less. This Super Bowl was not one of the exceptions. Washington won 37-24 after taking a large early lead then letting Buffalo score in garbage time.

After the game, as fireworks exploded overhead, we joined with tens of thousands milling through the nearby streets, searching in vain for a cab. We eventually found a shuttle bus to the airport to rent a newly available car. Before we left town for good the next day, we toured Best Brains, the studio home to Mystery Science Theater 3000, then at its creative peak, but that’s a story for another day.

It might have been a Minnesota thing, but the organizers and other locals treated us all like royalty. So I’d have to say that if you can win some Super Bowl tickets in the future, go for it! The experience will be hectic, but fun. It’ll definitely give you something to talk about.

A wall of multi-colored sticky notesDarren Rovell at ESPN says that Fox bought the rights to the next five years’ worth of Thursday Night Football from the NFL for over $60 million per game. He points out that players hate playing on Thursdays because that doesn’t give them enough time to heal from the previous Sunday’s game, but NFL commissioner Goodell said, “We will continue to work with the NFLPA to make the shorter week more attractive in a way that is better for our players.” The obvious answer is to only play on a Thursday when it’s after a bye week. Anyway, it’s great to see some content stay freely available on over-the-air TV, unlike …

Star Trek: Discovery hasn’t driven enough subscribers to the CBS All Access OTT service, if you believe the numbers crunched by Colin Dixon of nScreenMedia (which isn’t a typo, honest). He points out that Discovery is the least-viewed Star Trek series ever, writing “CBS’s decision to release the show through All Access appears to have deprived it of most of its audience.” (Although with the general decline of OTA ratings since ST: Enterprise ended in May 2005, that might have been true even if it had stayed on CBS.) All Access seems unlikely to make its goal of 8 million subscribers by 2020.

Finally, Chris Johnston of BBC News wrote last week that pay-TV provider Sky was going to make all its channels and content available online. Despite the article’s title, “Sky signals the end of the satellite dish”, the company said it didn’t plan to stop broadcasting by satellite. And I would add, yet. Satellites are darned expensive compared to internet delivery, so if the latter improves, we might see less and less of the former.

FCC logoFCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly added a post to the official FCC Blog last Friday to support the view that “the Commission needs to reconsider the ineffective and burdensome requirements currently imposed on our nation’s broadcasters to air a certain amount of educational and informational (E/I) children’s programming on a weekly basis”. In short, he’s going after the three hours a week of E/I shows that over-the-air TV stations are required to broadcast.

Since O’Rielly is one of the commissioners who voted against Net Neutrality, my knee-jerk reaction is that he has only corporate interests at heart and anything he backs must be bad for viewers. But it turns out that O’Reilly makes some good points.

Well, maybe just one good point. O’Reilly noted that each E/I show must currently run for a half hour or longer. He correctly points out that shorter times can lead to better lesson retention and implies that shorter programs could be scheduled with better flexibility. I don’t see that four 15-minute E/I shows would be worse than two half-hours.

I thought that another good point was on its way when he suggested that the current requirements focus too much on the quantity of programming. I thought he might pivot to a way to improve E/I quality, because some of it today is cheap trash. For one show, I puzzled over its disjointed narrative and emphasis on theme parks until I realized that it was made with 100% publicity footage. An hour of Schoolhouse Rock! would be much better than three hours of stock video. But he didn’t go there.

Another good point that I thought he was going to make would have been after he pointed out that the requirement had been expanded in 2004 to include multicast TV channels, which I’ve been calling diginets. I might have nodded my head if O’Reilly had said that the E/I mandate might only apply to the primary channel, or if he had suggested it might be reapportioned between a channel’s diginets. But he didn’t go there either.

Instead, O’Reilly pointed to PBS,  the internet, and pay-TV networks in saying: “Great Children’s Programming Exists Elsewhere”. (There was also a tortured argument that most locals couldn’t possibly find a free half-hour every weekday, so it gets dumped in a three-hour block on Saturday mornings, and that could preempt sports on the west coast sometimes.) I’ll spare you the inventory of children’s programming available through these alternatives and jump to the conclusion: “The question that must be asked is where is the market failure to warrant the continuation of the FCC’s Kid Vid mandates?”

No, that’s not the question. The children’s educational TV requirement is supposed to be a part of a station’s service to the public, whose airwaves provide the commercial broadcaster with the means to a handsome profit. It’s not supposed to be an educational lifeline for the suburban kid with 300 cable channels and unlimited internet access. It’s there to serve the single, working mom who can’t afford pay TV. It’s the scintilla of good in a shopping channel’s schedule. It’s the legacy of broadcasters working to improve the life of every viewer.

Market-based regulations are an oxymoron. Government regulations should balance the benefits to the public with the need to ensure that commercial TV stations remain healthy and prosperous. Nobody’s turning off the lights just because of their E/I obligations.