Sunday, December 16, 2012

Some suggestions for improving the gun background check system

The U.S. is still reeling over the mass murders in Newtown, Connecticut. Along with the expressions of horror and disgust over the murder of 20 children, all of whom were ages six or seven, and all of whom were shot multiple times, are calls to do something about the epidemic of gun violence. There have been 61 mass shootings since the Columbine High School massacre, but they're the tip of the iceberg. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reports that there were 9,146 gun-related homicides in the U.S. in 2011, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, there were 18,735 gun-related suicides in the U.S. in 2009.

Gun regulation has become a "third rail" political issue in the U.S., but the Newtown massacre may get President Obama and the U.S. Congress to finally do something about the rate of gun violence. According to The New York Times, the U.S. Justice Department drew up recommendations for improving the mandatory automatic background check system after the Tucson shooting of U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of Federal Judge John Roll and others. However, the plans were abandoned in the wake of the "Fast and Furious" gun "walking" scandal.

The recommendations, which are only sketched out in the Times article, would likely help keep people who represent risks to themselves or others from getting guns, but they could do much more:
  • Currently, states are encouraged, but not required, to provide information on criminal records and involuntary admissions to mental hospitals to the Federal background check system. Some states are years behind in their record submissions, and others don't submit information to the background check system at all. The Justice Department's proposal offers money to the states in order to get them to participate. I'd go one step further and require that the states participate and keep their records current. Those that don't would be subject to having their Federal funding for state and local police departments, prison systems and homeland security suspended.
  • The Federal system lets states determine how to define who they report as mentally "defective," but I propose requiring states to report both voluntary and involuntary admissions to mental hospitals. Any admission to a mental hospital would result in a lifetime ban on purchasing firearms or ammunition.
  • There are private databases that provide extensive information to insurance companies about individuals' medical history. These databases are used by insurance companies to help determine whether or not to provide medical coverage or issue life insurance. My suggestion is to add these databases to the state and Federal submissions, and to deny firearm and ammo purchases to anyone who has been treated for a variety of mental illnesses, including a ban on purchases for five years from the most recent filling of a prescription for an antidepressant, mood stabilizer or antipsychotic medication. The insurance database could simply respond back with a "go" or "no-go" in order to protect the privacy of applicants.
I recognize that this wouldn't have prevented the Newtown massacre, because the shooter got his weapons and ammunition from his mother (but, on the other hand, what was an elementary school teacher in a safe town doing with two semiautomatic handguns and an assault rifle? Correction, December 16, 2012: Early reports that said that the shooter's mother was a teacher at Sandy Hook Elementary School are incorrect. She home schooled the shooter for a few years, but was not a teacher by training.) However, it likely would have prevented the Tucson massacre and many others. In addition, it would cut down on suicides by gun, and help to keep guns out of the hands of people with impulse control problems. And, it would keep medical professionals from having to make judgment calls about whether or not to report patients to authorities.

This approach wouldn't affect the kind of guns, ammunition or magazines available to law-abiding citizens, but it would help to keep guns out of the hands of the people most likely to use them to hurt themselves or others--known criminals and people with mental conditions linked to violence. If the argument "guns don't kill people, people kill people" is true, let's get guns out of the hands of the people who are most likely to kill themselves or others.

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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The silly argument over 48 frames

You'd have to be living under the proverbial rock not to know that Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" will reach theaters this week. Jackson shot the movie at 48 frames per second, twice the usual 24 fps rate used for theatrical movies, using RED video cameras. Jackson says that the 48 fps rate provides "hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness", but many reviewers are saying that the effect "looks much like video." As well it should, because it is video.

For decades, the standard television frame rate in Europe has been 50 fps, to coincide with the continent's 50 Hz AC power frequency. In the U.S., the standard frame rate is 60 fps (actually 59.94 fps), again corresponding with the country's 60 Hz AC power frequency. (Yes, in analog television, those were field rates, and the frame rates were one-half the field rates, but with HD, we commonly use 50 and 59.94 progressive frame rates.) 48 fps is so close to 50 fps that, from a perceptual standpoint, there's no difference. The kinds of visual artifacts that reviewers are complaining about are much the same as any viewer from the U.S. commonly sees when they watch television in Europe--the image seems to "stutter", especially in scenes with lots of motion or with quick pans. After watching for a while, however, the eye gets used to the slower frame rate. That's exactly what's happening with "The Hobbit"--most people, even motion picture professionals, say that it takes about an hour for their eyes to get used to 48 fps. Of course, the problem with adjusting to 48 fps is exacerbated by 3D, which causes headaches and even nausea in some viewers.

48 fps is no miracle and no big advancement in cinema technology. For all intents and purposes, it's a video frame rate, shot with a video camera. No one should be surprised that "The Hobbit" looks like video. Jackson himself admits that the high frame rate issue was explored decades ago when Douglas Trumbull and his partners developed a 60 fps, 65mm film format called Showscan, which never took off because of its high costs. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was an enormous difference in the resolution of film and video, so there was no way that 65mm film shot at 60 fps could be mistaken for video. Today, however, RED and other cameras have 4K resolution--close enough to film that the differences are subjective rather than obvious.

If Jackson had shot "The Hobbit" at 50 fps, many people would have complained that he shot it on video. But, he did shoot it on video, at 48 fps instead of 50 fps. What's the difference?
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Monday, December 10, 2012

The Internet video battle is the wrong fight in the wrong venue

Last week, over-the-top Internet video company Aereo faced the major U.S. television networks in a Federal court of appeals in New York. Last July, a Federal court denied the broadcasters an emergency injunction to stop Aereo from offering its service, which enables consumers in New York City to watch, record and replay live broadcast television over the Internet. Aereo assigns a tiny, thumbnail-sized antenna to each active user, specifically to circumvent objections that resulted in court injunctions against ivi and FilmOn, two similar services that preceded Aereo. The appeals court hasn't made its ruling as of this writing, but based on court arguments, it looks like the appellate court will be less sympathetic to Aereo's arguments than was U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan.

In my opinion, both sides are fighting over the wrong issue, in the wrong venue. Aereo, and both ivi and FilmOn before it, took the approaches that they did because broadcasters and cable operators either refused to negotiate with them for rights to their content, or demanded fees that they couldn't possibly pay. There are conflicts in current laws that bring into question whether broadcasters must license their content to cable operators under what's termed a compulsory license. However, as the laws are generally interpreted, broadcasters can either make their content available to cable operators for free (in which case the cable operators must assign the broadcasters a channel,) or the broadcasters can ask for compensation for their content, in the form of payment and/or an agreement to carry other content from the broadcasters' parent companies (for example, CBS could require a cable operator to offer Showtime, which it owns, in order to get the right to broadcast its local television station(s).) Broadcasters can withhold their content from any cable operator that doesn't agree to their terms.

The real issue is whether broadcasters, if not cable networks, should be required to license their content under fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory (FRAND) terms to all distributors. I think that it's time for such a requirement. The rules that define who can be considered a Multichannel Video Programming Distributor (MVPD) were written before the Internet became a viable medium for distributing live video. There's no technical reason why Internet video companies can't compete with cable, satellite and IPTV operators, but very few broadcasters, and even fewer cable networks, are willing to sell them their programming.

Here's an example of a FRAND compulsory licensing scheme that could work: Over-the-top Internet services could license content from broadcasters on a tiered pricing scheme based on each service's number of active subscribers--for example, companies with 1-249,000 subscribers would pay a given per-subscriber fee for each broadcast station, and additional tiers with higher fees would be established at 250,000-499,999, 500,000-749,999 and 750,000-999,999 subscribers. Once a video service reaches one million subscribers, it would be subject to the same rules as cable, satellite and IPTV companies. For their part, cable, satellite and IPTV operators would also be eligible for the same FRAND compulsory licenses, at the same rates, until they too reach the one million subscriber mark. According to the most recent statistics from the National Cable Television Association, that would make all but the top 12 MVPD companies in the U.S. eligible for compulsory licenses. Finally, broadcasters could make their programming available to Internet services for free, under the same "must-carry" rules that apply to cable, satellite and IPTV services.

This approach would enable innovative Internet video startups to gain a foothold and compete against larger cable, satellite and IPTV companies, and it would allow smaller legacy MVPDs to compete on a level playing field. I'd also propose that cable networks that are owned by MVPDs (such as NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast) be required to follow the same FRAND compulsory licensing rules. Other cable networks could choose to make their programming available to smaller MVPDs, including Internet companies, under FRAND licenses.

The courts can't implement a FRAND compulsory licensing scheme; it has to be done by the U.S. Congress, in conjunction with the U.S. Copyright Office. No court ruling in the Aereo case, even if it goes all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, will fully resolve the case--if Aereo wins, broadcasters will push for legislation, and if the broadcasters win, Aereo and its allies will do the same. It's time to recognize that the public Internet works for live video distribution, that startups should be able to compete with existing cable, satellite and IPTV companies, and that content providers should get fair compensation, no matter how their content is distributed.
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Saturday, December 08, 2012

The Zero Option

In business, as in life, we often keep doing things because we've been doing them for a long time. It's habit and past practice converted into a self-fulfilling rationale for why things shouldn't change. "We've always done that." "We can't stop doing that." The result is that we keep doing things that we should have stopped doing years ago. This mindset is probably responsible for the failure of more businesses than anything else, but we can't get rid of the mindset, so we keep repeating the mistake.

I suggest a new approach called "The Zero Option." Take something that you're doing--even if it's still working, even if it's still profitable--and stop doing it. Do something else. Here's a few examples from media companies:
  • How often have you seen an ad on television for a movie that's bad--obviously bad, just from the commercial--but it's still booked into theaters for national distribution? I'm not talking about bad movies that will still make a lot of money, like the "Transformer" series, or a blockbuster bomb like "John Carter" where there's so much money at stake that the studio can't afford to walk away from it. I'm talking about movies in the $50 million dollar and below budget range that tested poorly and might have gotten mediocre or bad reviews from early showings at film festivals. These are often the movies that have their titles plastered at the top of the screen throughout their television commercials, as if seeing the title for a full 30 seconds will make a bad movie more desirable.

    Instead of spending a few tens of millions of additional dollars to promote a movie that's an odds-on turkey, why not kill it? Write it off. Sell it (even at a loss) to another distributor. Get back into the business of dumping stinkers into the direct-to-video market. Don't throw good money after bad.
  • Local television news is a dying business. It's still profitable for most stations, but the audience is dying off, as younger viewers switch to "The Daily Show", watch something on their DVRs at 11 p.m. or get their news from the Internet. U.S. television stations used to be required to show news programs by the Federal Communication Commission, in order to fulfill their obligation to operate "in the public interest." Today, fulfilling the public interest requirement has become little more than a joke; many stations do it with a few hours of children's cartoons on Saturday morning, between the early-morning infomercials and the early-afternoon sporting events.

    Rather than run news programs that have turned into a nightly cavalcade of murders, fires and crying mothers, where most of the audience is only interested in the weather report or sports, why not try something else? At the 11 p.m. hour, instead of producing a news report, how about replacing it with a local nightly talk show, perhaps hosted by a local radio talk show host with a strong following? Bring in a studio audience and talk about some of the local events of the day. Let viewers call in. You can still have weather and sports segments (or the entire show could be focused on sports.) Instead of being an also-ran for the "between 60 and dead" audience for local news, you could build a younger, more valuable audience for a locally-produced show.
  • Radio stations in the U.S. have been adding commercials to their broadcasts for years. It sometimes sounds like there's more commercials than content. That's led to the growth of satellite radio and streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, which have fewer ads or none at all. Broadcasters are wringing their hands about the growth of streaming media in particular; Clear Channel, which owns more radio stations than any other company in the U.S., has launched its own streaming service called iHeartRadio. But, why are consumers shifting away from broadcast radio? The answer is too many commercials. Yet, there's a radio in just about every car sold in the U.S., and it doesn't cost anything to turn it on or to keep using it.

    Instead of trying to push as many ads into each hour as you can, why not cut back on the number of commercials played each hour, and promote that as a differentiating factor? In the short term, your ad revenues will drop, but if your audience expands, you can charge more.
The Zero Option means making a deliberate decision to change something that you're doing, even if it appears to be working. It doesn't mean making a change because you're forced to by new technologies, competitors or governments--those aren't proactive, voluntary changes. It's about actively driving the rate of change in your industry instead of letting others drive it for you. 
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