People go to the theatre to get away from it all–but what happens when the troubles of the outside world intrude on New York’s greatest escape? Deficit hawks and government bureaucracy alike have found a new target, albeit inadvertently: Broadway theatres.  Theaters everywhere rely on wireless microphones not only to communicate lighting cues, sound cues, and set changes, but also to amplify and regulate the volume of the performers’ voices.  These microphones use airwaves, of course, and operate best in the 60-800 megahertz frequency; optimum frequency is necessary with so many theaters in such close proximity, to avoid interference and ensure the hundreds (possibly thousands) of wireless microphones operating simultaneously in Manhattan every night do so effectively and without interference.

These frequencies are technically controlled by the FCC.  For years, the FCC has allowed wireless microphones to operate freely on those airways, along with common products like garage door openers and remote controls.  But now, under increasing Congressional pressure to use available resources to decrease the deficit, the FCC is exploring privatizing these airways, auctioning them off to wireless data companies (essentially, cell phone companies) and restricting all wireless microphones to two low-frequency bands.  Were the FCC to successfully auction these highly desirable airways, the frequencies left would only be able to operate around a dozen microphones within a thousand yards, not even enough to operate a single Broadway show.

Such airway privatization could have a devastating impact on the already struggling theatre industry.  But the theatre lobby isn’t anywhere near as influential as it was a century ago, when it pioneered the piracy laws currently championed by the music industry.  Rather, the key to avoiding such a devastating blow to the entertainment industry may lie with an unlikely ally: the NFL.  The NFL uses just as many of the same wireless microphones in each game as a Broadway show; these microphones are used for communication among officials, coaches, and players, and are essential to the modern gameday experience.  But while NFL is under the same pressure as the theaters, it has more clout to fight back.  While subjecting theater owners to the sort of high-rent auction that they are sure to lose might pass unnoticed outside of the Northeast, preventing the sort of high-level communication between players and coaches to which the football-viewing public has become accustomed is a political loser for the FCC.  The NFL has a particular interest in avoiding the sort of low-frequencies that can be easily hacked or disrupted, as signal disruption has become a growing problem in recent years.

FCC regulations are never the most interesting things in the world to consider.  But the FCC’s control over wireless airspace gives them control over much of the world of sports and entertainment.  Like it or not, the fulcrum on which entertainment and technology pivot is, more often than not, governmental regulations overseen by the FCC.

–Shane Valenzi

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4 Responses to Give My Regards to FCC Regulations, and the NFL’s Regards Too

  1. Lizzie says:

    I’m certain concert venues and megachurches are also in the seemingly unlikely jock-theater alliance, fighting for use of prime spectrum for wireless microphones. Unfortunately, with a limited resource, increasing capacity for certain services necessarily decreases those available for others – the concern is how to fairly allocate the spectrum, balancing the preference for market-based allocation and the concern for maintaining the integrity of cultural capital. The long-term unlicensed nature of wireless microphone use and the history of ad hoc spectrum allocation only complicate matters. Registration, spectrum sharing, and the utilization of TV white spaces are potential options (and likely poor ones at that) that seem to be trying to make the most out of the least.

  2. Jeff says:

    Jocks block for theatre
    But frequencies have value
    Shouldn’t someone pay?

  3. Ryan Loofbourrow says:

    Great post, Shane! I also wonder what effect these FCC regulations would have on TV shows and movies, which would also arguably have more lobby power than Broadway. I do not know a lot about the subject, but when I saw the TV show “Nashville” being filmed, another group suddenly started using the same frequency that the “Nashville” group had been using all day. The directors were worried because it would be a huge pain to get everybody to change frequencies, but luckily the other group left when asked to. I wonder what the impact would be of having fewer frequencies would do to shows like “Nashville,” and if their lobby would join with the NFL to try and reach a more reasonable solution.