The key to good media.

I cut cable several years ago after I found myself clicking through all those channels without finding much and realizing how much that clicking was costing me each month.

The solution was a digital antenna that brings me 43 free channels. It cost less than $100 dollars instead of the well over $1000 – per year – I was paying Comcast. And, for only $120 a year, I get Netflix with tons of movies and other TV shows.

Yes!

Originally, TV was free in the US, paid for by commercials. England followed a different model. BBC viewers paid a yearly subscription, instead of watching commercials. It gave the BBC steady income, which allowed for consistent, high quality content.

One problem for the US was poor reception in mountainous areas. The solution to that came from John Walson of Mahanoy City in the mountains of Pennsylvania. He put up a huge antenna, let a few neighbors help pay for it, and thus invented cable TV.

Cable TV adapted the BBC subscription model, but with one big difference. The success of cable TV shows was measured by customer ratings, not government bureaucrats.  With steady incomes, companies like HBO and ESPN got great ratings because they produced great content. They helped cable take huge swaths of audiences away from free TV.

Rather than improve their shows to compete with cable, free TV chased larger audiences by chasing the lowest common denominator. Enter “Reality TV” and trashy syndicated talk shows. Free TV is now in an ever-increasing downward spiral.

But cable has an inherent problem. Companies like Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner and others are purveyors of hardware, not content producers. With no sense of good content and a well-known disdain for customers, they bundled content good content with lousy content, and continually raised prices, forcing people to pay more, for more channels they didn’t watch.  Cable TV is now fractionalized, expensive and, with the exception of HBO and a few others, boring.

The solution to that was – is – the internet, or streaming.

Viewers hate commercials. And content producers hate financial uncertainty. So primary streaming services – Netflix, Amazon, etc… adopted the subscription model, not the commercial one. And because subscription allows producers to make better shows and movies, they attract more subscribers. That’s why Apple, and soon Walmart, are jumping into it.

Which brings us to TV news and newspapers.

Some cable news producers have followed the free TV model of delivering lower content, which results, inevitably, in lower revenues. The best example is CNN. What started as 24 hours of hard news is now 24 hours of mostly talking heads.

Fox News, by contrast, started a whole new content model: talking head propaganda masquerading as news. They have been followed, with somewhat less success, by MSNBC. The good news: these channels have renewed the public’s interest in politics – a benefit to democracy. The bad news: propaganda destroys democracy.

Things have been looking look bleak for newspapers for years. Because of their 24-hour delivery system, cable news has upended most newspapers. Just last week, The New York Daily News cut its staff in half. Now there are only two big papers in the biggest city in the country. Smaller papers, those without the finances to support strong content, are disappearing like lightning bugs at dawn. Overall readership is at all-time lows.

But circulation is up at The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal, AP, and Reuters. Why? Content with an assist from delivery. They still have the most reliable news and, because of the internet, now have the fastest delivery. Reporters file stories on-line, almost in real time. Cable and TV can’t do that. They can’t have LIVE cameras in that many places. Technology has given newspapers a second chance. Now all they have to do is provide better content than cable news.

And the successful ones are. Instead of just covering daily news, they are providing other content, too. As I write this, the BBC News includes stories on climate change (how the Netherland keeps water at bay), and organ donation (The case for more male donors). The Wall Street Journal writes about a paralyzed vet getting back on a motorcycle. Local papers, like this one, cover news that doesn’t make national headlines, but directly effects local readers. All successful papers have opinion writers, unique to that paper, who write about everything from school controversies to mansplaining.

The key to good media is good content.

Share this column:

The beauty of being taken for granted

You know what I like about being taken for granted? Everything.

My kids take it for granted that I will always stick by them. They also take for granted that I will let them make their mistakes. Just as I made mine in having them.

OK, joke. But there were times….

(If they’re reading this right now, they’re shaking their heads and saying, ”See what I mean? Another corny Dad joke!”)

That’s being taken for granted. If I were to crack a dry, New Yorker style joke, they’d probably all come home for the weekend to take final pictures with Dad, just in case.

Your “significant other” takes you for granted and vice versa. If not, your “significance” would probably be under review. Of course she/he still wants the surprise one-liner once in awhile or a present or two when least expected, but, neither of you wants to, say, forget a birthday or anniversary. That might ignite the “flight or fight” or “adrenal medulla” part of the brain, which, in turn, can activate the stupid part of the brain:

“I left your present at the office.”

“The dog ate the chocolates I got you.”

“Darn that florist! Next year, we’re going to Spain for our anniversary.”

Stupid lying is always a mistake. Ask any politician.

Some people think being taken for granted can be boring. There’s a case to be made for that, I guess. In today’s world anything but a constant adrenaline rush is unusual. On the other hand, remember when the morning headlines rarely included our President’s name? Remember when you had a chat with a friend and the subject wasn’t the President’s latest war threat, sex scandal or enemy? Remember when Presidents were boring?

Boy, what I would give for boring now.

Boring is good for digestion. For example, I try not to check the news until an hour or so after a breakfast, lunch or dinner. And I no longer watch most cable and TV news with breathless headlines like,  “Out of control fires!” “Five dead!” “The rain wouldn’t stop!”

I like PBS News because it’s too boring for adrenalin. (“There’s a new brush fire on the outskirts of Sacramento.” “Five people were killed in a robbery near East Jibip”. “The Phillies game was rained out”). Plus they use full sentences.

Research shows that stores sell more when they gin up adrenalin with loud music and brightly colored displays. Ditto restaurants and bars.  More adrenalin means more sales. Clever, huh.

Taking others for granted and being taken for granted can lower “fight or flight” reactions. That’s one reason people like dogs so much. Dogs take us for granted and we them.

Before he died, I took my French Poodle, Philo, for granted. No matter how many times I wrote about his French arrogance, he never left my side (of course, he never stopped turning up his nose up at me either).

I know some people who are more loyal to their dogs than their significant others. And for good reason: dogs commit until death; humans commit until divorce.

We humans judge everything and everyone. From caveman days forward it allowed us to discriminate between danger and safety, wisdom and stupidity, friend and foe. It allowed us to conquer all other species.

But we can overdo it. We can get petty and lose friends, or never get them. (That person is too fat.  Ugly shirt.  What kind of doofus drives a van. Community college just won’t cut it). And that doesn’t include race or religion.

I have a friend who decided to stop being judgmental about unimportant things, just for a week. Within a few minutes, she failed. So she decided to just try for a day. She failed again. Then half a day, and so on until finally, she tried to stop judging for just one minute. Finally, success. Slowly she increased the time to where, now, she can go for weeks. She has more friends than anyone I know. She’s happier than most people I know.

In relationships, taking and being taken for granted is a sign of love without judgment.  Happily committed couples may argue from time to time, may sometimes “gee” when the other “haws”, or not support the same baseball team. But they don’t judge each other or try to change each other, which is one reason why, according to research, happily married couples live longer than single people.

That’s the beauty of taking and being taken for granted.

Share this column:

Whose Bully?

To understand what happened last weekend in Helsinki, listen to WIIFM. It’s not a radio station; it’s an attitude, a value system.

WIIFM or What’s In It For Me.

From pioneer days on, our country has valued integrity, individual freedom, helping others, the rule of law, and mutual sacrifice for shared goals. In short, WIIFUS, What’s In It For Us.

After WWII, the rest of the industrialized world was in ruins. But because our mainland hadn’t been attacked, our manufacturing industry was strong and efficient. From aircraft to autos to clothing and food, we had it all. So, we used the Marshall Plan and other programs to help rebuild Europe and Japan.

What was in it for us? Reparations forced on Germany after WWI had not only made it impossible for them to rebuild, they also created Hitler and Nazism. Where we had once happily isolated ourselves from the rest of the world, we now understood that helping others helped ourselves.  So, we helped create the UN, supported the formation of the European Union, and embraced globalization. The idea was that, by intertwining economies, by encouraging shared values, we would prevent a third world war.

It has worked for 70 years and counting. The Viet Nam and smaller wars, even the global Cold War, threatened world peace, but never blew it up. WIIFUS didn’t stop competition; it kept it civil. It didn’t stop enmity from Russia or China, North Korea or Iran, but shared values, as embodied in NATO, the EU and other alliances, mitigated both.

After WWII, the middle class arrived and prospered. Two cars in every garage, colleges filled with assembly-line workers’ and farmers’ children, closets and cupboards overflowed. By the 50’s and 60’s the America Dream had become reality.

Then, sometime in the early 1970’s, European and Asian manufacturing caught up. Over the next 4 decades they roared up to and frequently passed us in steel, infrastructure, automobiles, television, clothes, building materials – you name it.

Over the same time we became complacent about manufacturing and, instead, focused on new industries – computers, software, financial services – that required fewer workers. As a result, real wages (wages after inflation) stagnated, resulting now in a shrinking middle class, growing poverty, and an expanding wealthy class.

And the shared values of WIIFUS shrank.  Where Jonas Salk in 1955 invented the first Polio vaccine and literally gave it to the world, Marathon Pharmaceuticals recently bought a generic muscular dystrophy drug that cost patients $2000 a year, renamed it, and now charges patients $89,000 a year. Where banks once epitomized trust (“you can take it to the bank”), Wells Fargo steals from its customers. Comcast and Verizon, U-Haul and other retailers across the country – all legally lie. Politicians have always skirted the truth; now they’re putting out fake news stories on their own fake news sites.

Where we were once a nation that valued shared values, it’s now all about money and power. WIIFUS – what’s in it for us, has become WIIFM – what’s in it for me.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

Ironically, he was elected by WIIFUS people. They remembered the prosperity of post WWII America while struggling with stagnated wages and a rapidly diversifying culture. They felt discarded by the Congress, the Clintons and a Democratic Party that no longer speaks for them. These are people who felt bullied by the new WIIFM values; even so, in Trump they saw someone who said what they feel about big business and big finance, Muslims, illegal immigrants, and “liberal elites”.  He promised to bring back the America they remembered. So they backed him, even with his WIIFM values.

He was a bully, but he was their bully.

Last week Trump did something no American President has ever done. He insulted and attacked our closest European allies, just as he had insulted and had earlier attacked Mexico and Canada, our closest neighbors. On Monday he insulted his ownIntelligence community and praised a proven enemy of the US. All in an effort to aggrandize himself – or worse.

Do they stick by him now, even as the rest of the country is stunned, angry, even scared? Do they see the future, in which, between the debt incurred by his mammoth tax cut and the damage incurred by his trade wars, the middle class will continue to shrink?

Or do they peel away, leaving him without followers and thus without power?

Let’s hope.

Share this column:

From saving children to separating them

It sounds like something out of the Bible.  12 young boys of the Thai “Wild Boars” soccer team and their coach were trapped in a flooded cave system three miles long. Against the odds, their rescuers found them. Then the monsoon rains held off. Then the rescuers parted the waters by pumping massive amounts out of the caves. Finally they shepherded the children and the coach, most of whom couldn’t swim, through four hours of pitch black, underwater caverns, to daylight and safety. One Thai Navy Seal died in the process. For observers worldwide, the saga inspired poetry and prayers.

For Trump it inspired a tweet: “Such a beautiful moment – all freed, great job!”

Meanwhile, back in the US, after Trump reversed his “separation” policy weeks ago, only 54 of 102 children taken from their parents since early May have been returned to their parents. When ICE grabbed them, they sent them all over the country. Now they can’t find many or their parents.  Too bad they didn’t put them in a cave in Thailand.

There’s a simple solution to this, of course, but more on that later.

Meanwhile, Trump selected Brett Kavanaugh as his Supreme Court nominee. Because we’ll be living with that decision long after the “Wild Boars” have become parents themselves, you might want to know something about Kavanaugh’s judicial decisions.

He favors Wade over Roe: “the government has permissible interests in favoring fetal life, protecting the best interests of a minor, and refraining from facilitating abortion.”  So, if you’re anti-abortion, be happy. If you believe women should decide for themselves what to do with their own bodies, you may have a bad several decades, because, if Roe v Wade comes back to the Supreme Court, Kavanaugh will vote against you.

He favors religious beliefs over individual freedoms such as sexual orientation and/or abortion: “the regulations substantially burden the religious organizations’ exercise of religion because the regulations require the organizations to take an action contrary to their sincere religious beliefs.” If you are like the baker who denied a cake to a gay couple, or an institution that thinks birth control is ungodly, you will be happy. If you’re one of the 62% who support gay marriage, or the 70% who support Roe v Wade, not so good.

Kavanaugh favors loosening climate change regulation. According to him the EPA “exceeded its statutory authority” in regulating greenhouse gases. If you’re into buggy whip industries like coal, that’s good news. If you’re into surviving climate change, good luck.

He favors predatory financial practices over protection of the individual, calling The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau “a headless fourth branch of the US Government”. If you’re a payday lender or a Wells Fargo type, you win. If you’re broke or unaware of banking tricks, you lose.

He favors gun rights over gun control. ”Handguns — the vast majority of which today are semi-automatic — are constitutionally protected” and  “semi-automatic rifles are also constitutionally protected”. The NRA will cheer. Others will fear.

Here’s the one I suspect sold Trump on Kavanaugh: “Congress might consider a law exempting a President — while in office — from criminal prosecution and investigation, including from questioning by criminal prosecutors or defense counsel.” When Trump said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” he wasn’t kidding.

Remember George Washington’s refusal to be crowned king by the colonists? Quaint, huh.

But I digress.

Here’s an idea for reuniting those children with their parents. Call Facebook, or Tinder, or any other social media site. Have them put pictures of every kid on a web page. On another web page, put pictures of every parent. Then ask each kid to click on the picture of their parent and each parent to click on the picture of their kid. Bingo!

As to vetting? Ask child and parent to name the other’s favorite song or name a grandparent or describe their home or a birthmark or scar or any other identifying mark only a family member would know. In the time it takes sign up for a dating service, parent and child can find each other.

I don’t know about Trump, but to me, that would be a beautiful moment.

Share this column: